On artist residencies and site-specific projects that don’t always go as planned
Imagine a man experiencing the birth of his child through a virtual reality headset. This is not science fiction, but celebrated fact in a recent Samsung promotion. The father is a Fly in Fly Out (FIFO) worker who cannot make it home. In Western Australia, FIFO mining is ubiquitous. In Perth cashed up younger FIFOs pack out nightclubs, while suburban parks are populated by the children and partners that FIFO workers leave behind. While FIFO work holds the allure of financial prosperity, its negative side is becoming more visible, from the pressure it puts on families to mental illness among workers. But among contemporary artists, FIFO work has long been normalised. Since the rise of post-studio practices, residencies have been fundamental to building artist careers. Since the 2000s, the turn to social practices has meant that resident artists are also expected to engage with the community around them. As New Zealand artist Maddie Leach describes it, “there's a strange oscillation between high degrees of sociality and lots of communication and lots of talking and lots of solitariness”. Artists and the communities that host them are ideally supposed to benefit from each other, but the reality is often more complex and difficult than that.
Leach was recently a resident in Mandurah as a part of the Spaced program that hosts artists across regional Western Australia. Made up of newly built canals and roads atop reclaimed marshes, Mandurah is a satellite city of Perth that is populated by FIFO workers and retirees. It is the residency that nobody wants among the more glamorous, remote coastal communities and islands that also feature in the Spaced program. Leach soon put the residency partner and sponsor, The City of Mandurah, offside as she focused her interest on the site of the Pinjarra massacre, also called the Battle of Pinjarra, where in 1834 dozens of Aboriginal people were killed by a punitive expedition of settlers. There is a stone on the site that once had a plaque attached to it in commemoration of those who died, but it has been torn from the stone twice. Blame for the disappearance of the plaques could rest either with the local Nyungar people or with the settler population, both of whom had grievances with the memorial, albeit for different reasons. The Mandurah Council took issue with Leach’s desire to work with the site, ostensibly because it is technically located in the Shire of Murray, less than 20 km away. Perceived differences between Mandurah and Pinjarra are locally entrenched, something that Leach saw as a point of interest.
Leach has long been interested in language. On a residency in the town of Taranaki in New Zealand, the local newspaper agreed to publish a series of lengthy, obscure letters about some old oil she had found in a machine that was being dismantled. Taranaki was once a whaling town, and although the oil was not from a whale, Leach speculated that it might have been. The artist touched a nerve with locals who complained about the obscurity of her ideas and the expense of her residency for ratepayers. So, too, in Western Australia, Leach made use of the local newspaper, publishing a heavily redacted letter about the massacre that she had requested from the Shire of Murray. The letter is covered in black ink, with the words Brass Plaque-Battle of Pinjarra still visible in the middle of the page. Complaints against Leach in both Australia and New Zealand were not, ironically, about the history that she brought up. They were complaints about other things, such as crossing council boundaries and spending public money. Leach has received significant attention, not for the apparent success of her social practice but rather its failure.
Critics of the social turn in art around the world have famously pointed out that community engagement does not need to be collaborative, but can be at its best when it is critical and even antagonistic. Leach’s projects are not only this, but rest upon a fundamental lack of sociality, as the conversation between herself, her residency partners, local communities and her critics consists of deliberate misunderstandings. The redacted letter is a figure not only for a refusal to engage, but to acknowledge even the terms of engagement. At the Spaced 2 exhibition in 2015, Leach’s letter was buried in the pages of newspapers obscurely piled up in an exit to the exhibition venue, the Western Australian Museum. Instead of highlighting global connectedness, the work suggests a series of disconnections: of the plaque from its memorial; of the community from its own past; of the artist from the community; and the site of the story from its representation in the museum.
Other works, more centrally displayed in this show, turned the contradictions of the international residency program into allegory. Daniel Peltz, like Leach, was abandoned by the local shire and sponsor, and left to his own devices in the mining town of Tom Price. His final work neatly traces the flows of global production, both artistic and corporate. As the creative outcome, he commissioned a Peking Opera company to perform the story of the mining entrepreneur Tom Price, presenting their performance on video. On local sites, too, global business was a persistent theme. Tea Mäkipää and local collaborator Monika Thomas set up free internet access at Business Hotspot amidst the rolling hills of a national park near Esperance. After a residency on the Cocos Islands, John Mateer published a historical fiction, The Quiet Slave, that is based on the story of a group of Malay people who were brought there as slaves in the 1800s, just as slavery was being abolished. And, in the first series of Spaced residencies in 2009, Takahiko Suzuki advertised small businesses in Taiwan in Kellerberrin, and Kellerberrin businesses in Taiwan. The same year, Dutch artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis followed sheep from Lake Grace on their journey through the controversial live export trade to slaughter in Bahrain. Such works are successful in visualising the contradictions upon which the international residency rests, contradictions that are refracted through the stories of sheep, small businesses, slaves and other commodities.
Such works readily align with Marco Marcon’s original vision for a remote residency program, that he describes as “short-circuiting the divide that separates the local and the global, the 'micro’ and the ‘macro’ dimensions of cultural identity”. At the time, Marcon was managing the International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia (IASKA), bringing a steady flow of international artists to a small Western Australian wheatbelt town. When Melbourne artists Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley set up a neon sign titled Inland Empire (2008), it was both an allusion to the creepy David Lynch film of the same name, and a reflection of their own traumatic experience in Kellerberrin. Upon visiting one of them while on this IASKA residency, the authors found them in great distress, haunted by the ghosts in the building and shocked at the racism of rural Australia. Instead of an outward engagement with community, the artists’ final work suggests an artistic turning-inward; one, ironically, projected out into the town itself. Marcon acknowledges that: “unlike other overseas villages running residencies projects, Kellerberrin is not a tourist centre, it does not boast important historical buildings or picturesque surroundings. The landscape is imposing but not harsh and even the most patriotic local resident would concede that the town is not pretty. Furthermore, local attitudes are conservative, as the very high local vote to One Nation testifies.”
Many of the controversial aspects of artist projects have simply not made it to the exhibition stage. In 2012, a captivating video installation by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth called The Way You Move Me (2011), of cows and sheep being herded through the countryside, came out of their failure to work with the local people. The artists had spent the first half of their residency on a project that involved filming in the local graveyard, but admitted that: “We knew that there might be some issues in getting permissions to film but in Moora, particularly amongst the Aboriginal community, the issues are too complex. As there is so much uncertainty about what can and can’t be filmed, we are worried that any permissions we might have been granted about filming a particular grave might be undermined by somebody’s objection later in the life of the project. This might result in the artwork being removed from exhibition. So, reluctantly, and with sincere appreciation and apologies to our growing list of participant families, we decided to stop making our cemetery project.”
If there is one thing that defines the diverse range of residency programs that have proliferated around the globe since the 1990s, it is the notion of artists engaging with the situation they have been placed in. Whether the residency solicits direct community engagement, creates a community of artists in some remote location or embeds them inside a hospital, school, or museum, artists are generally expected to use their new circumstances productively, to transform their experiences in situ into their practice. A residency might be considered unsuccessful when the resident has failed to engage in this way. But increasingly stories are emerging from the global residency world that bear witness to artists who intend to fail to engage, or who simply disengage, or engage in the “wrong way”. In the 2011 residency project, Post-Studio Tales, artists were invited to construct their ideal studio inside a large warehouse space at Berlin’s District Kunst und Kulturförderung. Finding these conditions unsuitable for making his work, artist Martin Kohout left the residency shortly after arriving. Instead of participating in the open-studio project, Kohout contributed a written description of his ideal studio. In a similar gesture, the artists Markus Soukup and Sam Skinner, who were invited to attend a symposium on Critical Tourism at the Nida Art Colony, opted only to participate via a Skype presentation titled Postcard To Nida where they showed touristy images of their home city of London. In both of these examples, the artists refused to join the temporary community being created by the residency, opting instead to critically engage from a distance.
In Mandurah, Leach’s difficulties began when she chose to base her project in a location just a short drive away. Residencies, as designated places for participation, may struggle to reconcile projects that occur outside of the boundaries that are set for them. Kohout’s work got barely a mention in the Post-Studio Tales publication, while artist Laura Ķeniņš lamented that Soukup and Skinner had “excluded themselves” from the community that developed at Nida. Yet these projects also reveal tensions that emerge from the way in which contemporary residency programs demand certain forms of engagement from their artists. Spaced grapples with an even more complicated realm of engagement – with local, small and regional communities. Residents are often stranded in isolated places, with little pedestrian traffic. Artists must reach out to locals to find either a public, or participants, for their work.
The debate that has shrouded the so-called social turn in art practice has focusing primarily on the criteria and values by which this form of art should be judged. The two-sides are epitomised by Grant Kester’s preference for a dialogical model, one that calls for ethical collaborations predicated on exchange and dialogue; and Claire Bishop’s preference for more autonomous artist-led works, that are primarily concerned with critical reflection, but which may lead to antagonistic relations with participants and audience. In-between these two extremes lie a whole range of works, often produced via residency programs, that are neither overtly antagonistic and critical, nor representing longer-term, collaborative engagement. In these works, antagonisms often emerge as a natural part of trying to engage different community groups, rather than from the explicit intention of the artist to be controversial. Or an overtly authorial work may emerge from a community that does not want to be solicited as a collaborator. While Spaced does not set out a particular or reductive approach to what community engagement should entail, its open-ended expectations can also have their own expectations. In a talk for the Spaced 2 symposium, Peltz reflected that: “there is no precedent, for example, of the role of resident artist in the Shire of Ashburton. Problems arise, however, because the absence of an established role does not mean that there are a lack of expectations of this role.” In the end, many of the complexities that unfold as the result of artist-residency work are only rarely articulated by the projects themselves. Maddie Leach’s work is just a page in a complicated local story and really a side note in the Spaced exhibition. It failed either to really significantly intervene, and incite controversy, or to create resolution and community cohesion. Instead it situates itself within an on-going, complicated and fragmented conflict, of which the artwork registers but a fleeting moment. The work transformed from an (unintentionally) antagonistic engagement, to a rather detached one. But because of this, Leach’s work seems a meditation on some of the less talked about by-products of artist FIFO work – the frustrating, unproductive, never to be resolved aspects of so many attempts to engage.
- ^ See the story behind this promotion and a link to the film on YouTube: www.samsung.com/au/news/local/world-at-first-live-streaming-virtual-reality-birth-using-samsung-gear-vr.
- ^ From the interview with Maddie Leach for Spaced 2: future recall. This can be viewed here and on YouTube: http://www.spaced.org.au/projects/maddie-leach.
- ^ See Sheridan Coleman, 'Tom Price: A Company Town', Artlink 33:4, 2013, pp. 66–68.
- ^ John Mateer, The Quiet Slave, Perth: Spaced, 2015.
- a, b Marco Marcon, 'Out of Site: Developing IASKA', Artlink 22:2, 2002, p. 43.
- ^ Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, work in progress blog entry, 'Moora: Sonia Leber & David Chesworth', Week 5, 11 September 2011: www.spaced.org.au.
- ^ Post-Studio Tales, District Kunst und Kulturforderung, 2013, p. 14.
- ^ Scandinavian Art Territory: http://www.arterritory.com/en/texts/reviews/2353-how_to_be_a_critical_artist-tourist/.
- ^ Claire Bishop, 'The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents', Artforum, February 2006, pp. 179–185; and Grant H. Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
- ^ From the interview with Daniel Peltz for Spaced 2: future recall. This can be viewed here an on YouTube: http://www.spaced.org.au/projects/daniel-peltz.
Spaced is a recurring international event of socially engaged art. Conceived and coordinated by International Art Space (formerly IASKA) | www.spaced.org.au
Jessyca Hutchens is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art. Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.