16 June–15 July
A Partnership for Uncertain Times brings together four established South Australian artists who work at the intersection of art, science and technology. As a research and curatorial concept, it invites artists to hold space for doubt and to look critically at their own practice. Co-developed by artist Deirdre Feeney and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT), it proposes ‘placing emphasis on courageous experimental development over “perfecting” finished artworks.’ With support from Arts SA and University of South Australia (UniSA), the year-long engagement has given the artists generous time for research and collaboration.
An exhibition at Newmarch Gallery in Prospect offers fascinating insight into these artists’ work and methodologies, and is only one material expression of a multi-tentacled (and multi-temporal) project. A Partnership for Uncertain Times includes a preliminary workshop, online and public forums, video profiles by Click Films, photographs of the artists at work in their studios by Taylor Parham, and writing from a range of voices. As a transitional project, the creative works discussed below are ongoing and open-ended.
Perception itself is at the core of Deirdre Feeney’s interests, particularly the ways in which technology can mediate visuality and generate states of wonder. Beginning her creative path as a glassmaker at the Australian National University (ANU), she has explored the projection of images with glass, and is now making images using 3D-printed resin objects, machine-tooled mirrors and light.
In Perceptual Illusions (2023) digitally fabricated resin objects and precisely manufactured polygons spin like a praxinoscope, projecting images that conjure depth of field. To manufacture the bespoke optical mirrors that generate this illusion, Feeney has collaborated with micro-engineers Mark Cherrill and Sudhakar Sajja at the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF). In the gallery, the images themselves are diminutive, but the tripod-mounted devices have an uncanny, flickering presence that suggests machine intelligence; they evoke an emerging future while recalling the haunting qualities of early cinema.
Working with light as a material, uncertainty is part of the process. Feeney’s creations entail much trial and error, an iterative calibration that recalls writer Toni Morrison’s aphorism that ‘failure is just information’— a scientific, as well as an artistic principle.
For this project, Feeney has been based at the Laser Physics and Photonics Device Laboratory at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes campus, where she has been surrounded by physicists. At first, the contrast in world views was stark, but time, proximity, and a willingness to sit with uncertainty allowed for divergent ways of seeing to meet. Gradually, she says, ‘a new perception emerged.’
Divergent perceptions also collide in Narungga artist Brad Darkson’s work, sparked by relearning traditional land management practices with the Kaurna fire project. Never Too Hot (2023) emerges at the difficult meeting point of two scientific knowledge systems and involves the transfer of cultural knowledge, care for Country, and the translation of fire into sound.
It’s Darkson’s corner of the gallery that feels most like a studio space. The work on display is a glimpse of deeper processes: film footage of cultural burning, small photographs of Country, burned logs, grass and charcoal, a tall fire cylinder connected by wire to a table of electronics, static materials waiting for human hands.
Darkson’s unusual fire sounds—electronic glitches and squelches—are created using a mixture of chemical and technological processes, including thermoelectric generators and analog synthesis. Fire is already noisy; Darkson notes the difference between healthy crackling of cool fire from traditional burning and the roaring intensity of uncontrolled bushfires.
Never Too Hot is also about the mediation of perception; translating fire’s voice allows the country and its processes to speak back to us in new ways, insisting that audibility is not legibility. Like light, fire has an inherent ephemerality and vulnerability; working with fire requires skill, sustained attention, and an understanding of complex relationships.
Darkson sees his work as inherently collaborative, decolonial and anti-capitalist. As is the case for many First Nations artists, Darkson’s creative practice is loaded with obligations to Country and family; hence cultural responsibilities have a profound influence on all stages of practice. He cites the value of ‘yarning as research.’ By carrying the labour of his Elders and ancestors forward, Darkson keeps knowledge alight. Cultural continuity endures within and beyond any single work.
Relationality is also a central preoccupation for Catherine Truman. In residence at Carrick Hill, a 1930s house and museum on Peramangk and Kaurna country in Adelaide’s foothills, Truman has devised a walking practice that falls somewhere between ritual, meditation and scientific observation: a ten-minute lap either side of the building.
A contested monument with a complex history, Carrick Hill’s 100-acre setting is a mix of introduced species, landscaped gardens, and native forest where traditional land management has been prevented. In The Taken Path (2023), Truman’s walks turn from, and extend towards, two character trees: a northern hemisphere pencil pine, and a grey box eucalyptus. This iterative walking practice has allowed for emergent perceptions in the uncertain space between self and nature.
Working with long-time collaborator, neuroscientist and video poet Ian Gibbins, Truman records her walks with the ubiquitous hand-held phone. The year-long process allows observational detail to emerge, tracking how this ‘potent landscape’ changes. ‘It has already provided years’ worth of material,’ she says.
Truman believes that a critical view of process is essential to artists and scientists alike. The duration of Uncertain Times allows concepts to arise and be questioned, rather than imposed. Video work on two LCD monitors is accompanied by glass gloves and texts that serve as poetic artefacts: lists of human workers, the names of birds, reflections. These texts are intended as fragments: ‘I am determined that this project remains open-ended,’ reads one.
Truman’s sustained attention to detail has its roots in art/science traditions such as botanical illustration, but the camera’s walking rhythm, reminiscent of a video game, brings the body in as avatar. We are invited to imagine being ‘in place’, to be aware of its scent, wind and heat; the living bodies of trees, lorikeets, magpies, and all the life that goes unseen. The Taken Path has multiple meanings, but it is partly an invitation to participate in the endless and careful work of observation.
Niki Sperou’s attention to the living body takes a very different form. The artist is known for working with live matter as a medium: ‘a palette,’ as she puts it, ‘of skin, blood, and flesh.’ Drawing on her Greek heritage, Sperou uses biotechnology to generate chimerical forms that challenge hierarchies and disciplinary boundaries. Here, Sperou is collaborating with performance artist Michael Dudeck on a project called MESH: Interspecies Empathy (2023).
As in their previous collaborative work, Skin Bible: The Word Made Flesh, (2020) this project engages science, culture and mythical speculation. Living material is fraught with uncertainties, as it grows, changes and resists intervention. There are ethical and political uncertainties that attach to manipulating life, which Sperou meets with pragmatism, sensitivity and humour. She looks for common ground, stating that ‘we all have the ability to thrive and suffer.’ The frame of empathy allows for reflection on biological science’s often grisly history and use of, or complicity with violence. Where human beings have disrupted or harmed other forms of life, Sperou sees a responsibility to heal wounds.
Sperou’s exhibited work is more performance documentation than visual art (true to some degree of all four artists), but it gives a sense of the ways in which intimacy with living material might generate emotional connection and beauty as well as scientific data. Sperou and Dudeck’s open-ended inquiry structure has allowed the collaboration to take new paths, such as exploring virtual reality. This is a rich conceptual encounter, reaching for the possibilities of life outside the body: new forms of shared vulnerability, new forms of embodied meaning and future myth-making.
Art/science collaborations risk becoming ethnographies in either direction, arguments about value and subjectivity, assertions about hierarchies of knowledge, or repetitions of traditional misunderstandings. Shared terrain can be more battleground than intersection. The focus on uncertainty here is not new, but it has been given abundant room, allowing these artists to ‘stay with the trouble’ of shared spaces, preoccupations and materials, and to create fertile conditions for mutation and hybridity.
The partnerships are multiple: over time, what Feeney describes as a ‘rhizomatic’ structure of collaborative relationships has emerged: ‘I would hope the project nurtured that rather than determined it.’ All these relationships introduce new complexities and allow inquiry to evolve, generating (and being generated by) an uncertainty that sits somewhere between John Keats’ concept of negative capability and Donna Haraway’s hot compost of unexpected combinations.
For Melissa DeLaney, ANAT CEO, the year-long project offers a prototype for a deeper way of working, as shifting value systems emerge from the compound crises and uncertainties that surround us. There is a structural biomimicry here; the project offers a sense of culture as a continuous growing, a life force into which individual artists and collaborations might pour their energy.
In highly conceptual work, process orientation can sometimes mean an over-emphasis on documentation, theory outweighing practice. Increasingly, academic institutions scaffold artists’ labour, and the university has come to set the terms of creative research in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The exhibition at Newmarch Gallery is fractional, perhaps hard to access at points; however, digested slowly alongside Parham’s photographs of the artists at work and Click Films’ short and polished video profiles, which are also on display, it offers a sense of the complex and multifarious labour behind the scenes.
Together, these works have a mild psychoactive effect, drawing fresh attention to sensory perception and its many mediations—biological, material, historical and cultural. In their presence, uncertainties multiply.
- ^ See A partnership for Uncertain Times: Art + Science + Technology, (Adelaide: ANAT, 2023), https://issuu.com/marchellematthew/docs/a-partnership-for-uncertain-times; an artist’s Q&A discussion led by Melissa DeLaney at Newmarch Gallery on 1 July 2023 will further expand on the exhibition and “Uncertain Times”.
Jennifer Mills is an author, editor and critic living on Kaurna Yerta.
This article is part of a brand partnership between Artlink and ANAT.