Vitalstatistix spoke with Melbourne-based artist Lz Dunn, whose work Aeon features as this year’s Adhocracy residency project, and South Australian artist and creative producer Alysha Herrmann who will be participating in the Aeon residency.
V: Could you each tell us about your artistic practice?
Alysha Herrmann: My artistic practice is a shifting mess of questions. I currently describe myself as a parent, writer, theatre-maker and cultural organiser.
I make things. I help others make things.
I am interested in projects that explore connection and vulnerability.
I am interested in projects that are cross disciplinary and are in conversation with non-arts experiences (like theatre + farming). I am interested in collaboration and experimenting and exploring and not knowing.
My independent works in 2016 have been intimate (for between 1 and 8 audience members at a time) and have delved into soundscapes/audio and installation rather than traditional ‘plays’. I am interested in theatre-making that blurs the lines between roles and focuses instead on what collaborators bring to the table and making something that wasn’t there before.
I am interested in projects that are in direct conversation with audience – that might be literally through live text message conversations, or by here and now subject matter or by ancillary experiences (like feasts and dress- ups pre or post show) – especially audiences who have felt left out or intimidated by theatre/art spaces/worlds. Regional communities and young people have my heart. I like urban discoveries and old people too.
I have stepped in and out of many roles – performer, director, producer, writer, co-designer, dramaturg – some roles fit more comfortably than others, some roles come more easily than others, some roles I have fumbled my way through.
Being in the room and on the floor making things is one of my favourite things. I like to say yes.
Lz Dunn: I’ve realised that what I continue to be interested in is creating experiences and spaces for people to move through. I get excited by quite large concepts and look for ways to craft a time and space that invites people to consider ideas through an experience of doing something somewhere rather than watching something happen. I’m reading a book at the moment, which compares Western and Chinese philosophies of time and processes of change, where I came across a phrase I really like. Rather than trying to create ‘being’ by insisting on precision and distinction, it speaks of a need to ‘advocate the outline’. I think this might be what I try to do.
Walking seems to recur as a form and birds as a theme. The possibilities of queerness are key too. In process, collaboration is really important for me. I have some key collaborators that I work with regularly (most of them are working on Aeon) and I really love the way things diverge and explode when I’m working with other brains and bodies.
There’s a generosity and reciprocity in collaboration that is really energising. I really think I get as much out of artistically leading a project as I do out of working to support and share someone else’s initial vision because I get to go places I wouldn’t have otherwise taken myself.
As well as my collaborative projects I sometimes make videos that either capture field recordings or field performances and I’ve started a solo dance practice over the last two years that has been really fun. I’m presenting my first public performance at the end of this year, which is very exciting and pretty terrifying.
V: Lz, Aeon is part of a body of work you have made that takes birds as an inspiration and is informed by queer ecology. Can you tell us about your interest in these fields of inquiry?
L: Aeon evolved from an earlier project called Flyway (that I made with Lawrence [English] and Lara [Thoms]) where I was interested in linking migratory birds with how we experience ‘nature’ in urban environments and our acculturated perceptions of boundaries. I’m interested in birds both personally (yes, I do enjoy some bird watching) and culturally. Birds in cities, like pigeons, are often viewed as pests. Still we accept them as belonging there but not in the ‘natural world’ beyond. Queer culture is also something that has historically been naturalised in cities–seen as the deviant product of human culture, not nature.
Queer Ecology is about questioning dominant ideas of what is considered ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’, by asking what powers influenced this way of thinking and who or what might be excluded or made invisible by that.
For me, birds have become this very visible, specific lens through which to meditate on interconnection, how we share space with humans and other species.
V: Alysha, you have previously participated in an Adhocracy residency project called Future Present with artist Rosie Dennis in 2014. Can you tell us your thoughts on the value of this annual residency opportunity for South Australian artists?
A: I’m still wrestling with the questions Future Present woke for me. That alone speaks to the value it had for me.
I think that there are multiple points of value in the annual residency opportunity as a whole but the ones that most stand out to me are:
- Engaging with the practice and project of another artist – and specifically an artist from elsewhere – is particularly useful to spark new ways of thinking and working. Although artists often collaborate, we also often work in isolation or often work in familiar teams with people we trust. We don’t always get to see inside the process and practice of artists who might work in very different (or quite similar) ways to us. Working with an interstate artist/team can also open up a doorway to other interstate artists/ideas/collaborations.
- Meeting and working with other SA artists. Seeding friendships, future collaborations and networks of support. Stumbling upon those excellent local projects and people that you just aren’t aware of because your circle hasn’t organically found them by itself.
- Attachment to and nurturing of a relationship with Vitalstatistix as an artistic organisation and a creative community. The sense that we are not alone in these big hungry questions we are wrestling with. The opportunity to have our work and our voices amplified by something bigger than our own networks.
Since Future Present, I’ve employed other artists from that residency on projects I’ve Creative Produced, become friends with others, continued to share information, ideas and support with all of the SA artists, continued to be inspired by Rosie Dennis and the work of UTP and Vitals. Future Present was only two weeks but it had a significant and ongoing impact on me and my practice.
I came away from Future Present asking why art? Is that the best use of your time, does it actually achieve your mission? Or would you be better off using your time as an activist, a social worker, a teacher, a farmer?
So far I’m still making art.
V: Aeon is a site-specific work, which invites audiences on a sound walk. You both have experience making works for sites, whether that is parks, city streets, lounge rooms or other locations outside of formal performance or gallery spaces. What are some important things to consider when making a site-specific work?
A: Why are you making site specific work? I think asking yourself that question first of all is pretty important. Because your reason might be about testing a way of working, or about who your audience is, or about something else entirely. All of which can, and probably should, shape how you might approach making whatever it is. Depending on the exact specificity (loungerooms vs a particular loungeroom) I think spending as much time in that space as you can before you start making the thing is good. I think thinking about what that site might mean to the people/creatures who already use it and how your use might interrupt or challenge their use is really important – especially if that use takes power away from those who already have less power than you – that doesn’t mean don’t use it, but I’m saying I think we need to have considered those impacts.
Considering the logistics is also important – like where will I go to the toilet, what happens if it rains, what’s our evacuation plan, who do I need permission from to work here, am I okay with things being stolen or vandalised (and how does that change the experience I intend?).
L: I tend to work from a kernel of an idea or question that expands slowly. So the interest is often conceptual and may not be reliant on a specific site but the idea itself is reliant on considering the specifics of sites. To make site-specific work you need to be interested in the realities of working outdoors, in public space or in non-traditional art venues; it’s unpredictable and lots of elements are out of your control. This needs to be central to the idea and the form so that you’re not feeling anxious about needing things to be a certain way for it to ‘work’. It will always be different and that’s what keeps it dynamic.
V: You are both parents to young children/babies. Has the experience of parenting changed your perspective on art making or sustainable arts practice?
A: I have an almost 13 year old and a 2 year old. I became a parent for the first time before I became an adult – and before I stumbled into the arts – and it was my first child who actually led me to art making. I became a participant in a community arts and cultural development theatre project that was a co-production between Riverland Youth Theatre and Vitalstatistix about teenage mothers (which I wrote about for the Griffith Review in 2014). It transformed my life and led me into this rabbit hole of art making.
Parenting my second child has been different in many ways, because I’ve grown and changed so much and my life and its circumstances have shifted so significantly. There are questions I asked myself this time around that weren’t even on my radar in the slightest the first time around. Questions about gender and language and clothing and parenting practices and lifestyle that with my first child I just did what everyone else was doing, I replicated what my own parents had done. With my second child I questioned everything. I think if anything my artistic practice changed my perspective on parenting more than the other way around.
Having said that –
My youngest was 5 weeks old when I participated in the Future Present residency with Vitals. I was still breastfeeding, so expressing milk throughout the first week while they were home with my partner and then they were with us in the room during the second week of the residency. That residency was exploring climate change through the focus of primary production. Everything about that experience, from the themes, to the reality of having baby in the room while ‘making’ honed and shifted my perspective in myriad ways. It still hasn’t settled. I’m still discovering and figuring out what that means. What I have to sacrifice, what I don’t have to sacrifice, how I make, what I make, when I make, who I make with, where I make.
My perspective as an artist is completely shaped by my role as a parent though, absolutely, and I try to always name that in my bios and introductions because it does inform me as ‘artist’.
L: I’m sure it has but I’m not even three months into it–still in the magical twilight zone– so I might need to get back to you on that in another 10 months! But basically I think all artists are thinking about the sustainability of their practice all the time and parenting is just one version of a big life change. If you decide having children is also important, and you get the opportunity to make that happen, then you’re just really lucky. A couple of years ago I had a chat with an artist who is also a parent to three kids and she had just taken a bookkeeping job. And she saw that work as part of her practice too. She’s a trained dancer but is really expansive about what she brings into her practice – she lets everything she does have a creative value that can feed into her making process. I think it’s a great way to move through the world.
Saying that, I’m always scheming towards setting up a utopic art commune where my family and my friends can all live in some permacultured, beachside paradise where awesome humans from the big wide world come to stay so we don’t all implode.
V: Lz, you are an associate artist with Melbourne-based experimental arts organisation Aphids. Your Aeon creative team also includes some long-term collaborators. How has your connection to a group of artists and collaborators informed your practice?
L: Yes! I feel so fortunate to work with the artists I do and they massively inform my practice. I’ve been working with Lara [Thoms] and Willoh [S. Weiland] as part of Aphids since 2010, and Lawrence [English] since 2011 through our project, Flyway. Collaborating is really important for me; it means ideas can develop in conversation with other brains and that I’m constantly opening up to new possibilities and processes.
I think maintaining collaborations does take a lot of effort and as Aphids, Willoh and Lara and I have invested a lot in our collaborative relationship and worked really hard to keep making art together. I have huge respect for their brains and their art. In every project we do we learn more about our process and how our specific skills and interests complement each other. We all initiate quite different kernels of ideas but share key approaches and aesthetics, which keeps a healthy tension alive.
I think my work with Lawrence draws on his interest in the act of listening, particularly in relation to field recording. His methodology for combining site-specific sound and musical elements really resonates with the ways I approach the performative experience of moving through and relating to space–it’s somewhere between a tangible, factual, very specific encounter and a sort of dreamscape of infinite possibilities. We use Flyway as a reference point in Aeon a lot. That shared understanding that crosses over projects is really valuable.
Also, working with other people is mostly more fun. Important.
V: Alysha, in 2015 you won the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson award which recognises young leadership in community arts and cultural development. What do you see as the future for CACD, socially engaged and community-based arts practice in Australia?
A: I feel like I’ve been asked this question before and I didn’t have a good answer the other time either. I think CACD, socially engaged and community-based arts practice is always shifting and redefining itself and will continue to do so into the future. I see more and more CACD and related practice creeping into mainstream artistic conversations nationally. I see a stronger recognition for the hunger communities and audiences have for experiences that have relevance to their lives and experiences. I see CACD and socially engaged practitioners continue to have a key role to play in advocacy at every level and they are more nationally organised and effective in doing so. I see CACD work pulling major institutions into the here and the now and the conversations we all keep avoiding.
I see regional practitioners that stop taking every else’s advice and start forging their own identities. I see less organisations and more organised individuals. I see organised individuals inserting themselves into the work of non-arts organisations as integral and valued players. I see less money. Less ‘opportunities’. I see ‘opportunity’. I see smaller scale and larger scale. I see echoes of 20 years ago and promises of 20 years from now. I see continued commitment and increasing need.
How do each of you feel about the future of the arts nationally? What kind of arts initiatives and arts organisations do you think are most critical at this time?
A: I keep looking back and thinking about all the amazing opportunities and pathways and connections that got me to where I am now – so many of them no longer exist. So I am angry and demoralised and worried about the future, especially for young and emerging artists. But I also think in the biggest picture, the longer ‘game’ and how sometimes old structures have to entirely collapse to make space for new foundations. So I feel both disillusioned and hopeful. There is both grief and excitement. The challenges and complexities of this moment in time feel like an invitation to tear down and replace the things that are broken, to question everything. I’m not saying that’s easy. It terrifies me and I question my ability and skill to even contribute to that, but it feels important and valuable and ‘right’.
I think arts initiatives and organisations that foster collaboration and questioning and are local in action but global in thought are critical at this time.
Initiatives that actively question who is in the room.
Initiatives that talk to the here and the now and the future maybes. Initiatives that invest in people, not product. Initiatives that explore the borders and the boundaries and all the blurriness. Initiatives that make people feel invited and welcomed AND manage to also be thought-provoking. Initiatives that build on and learn from the past and imagine new futures. Initiatives that give artists and audiences a framework and a space to ask questions.
Initiatives like Adhocracy are critical at this time.
Organisations that are willing to stick their neck out for everyone who hasn’t been invited to the table. Organisations willing to challenge themselves and their own history. Organisations willing to champion others, even when those others might be competitors. Organisations who foster connection, community, conversation and a willingness to not have all the answers. Organisations who share. Organisations who dream big and deliberately and act locally and intentionally.
Organisations like Vitalstatistix are critical at this time.
I consistently look to Vitalstatistix as a source of inspiration, provocation and reassurance. Adhocrary as a framework is totally something I want to see stolen and copied in as many locations as possible. I’m not even trying to suck up.
L: I feel really confused about a lot of the decisions that have been made. It can feel like a bit of a disaster.
There’s obviously a whole plethora of stuff to rant about on this topic but just to focus on a personal perspective, my practice has grown absolutely through the support of small to medium organisations. Every key opportunity I’ve had has been enabled by organisations that, like Vitals, value experimentation and give emerging and established artists support to test out new ideas and forms. They offer programs that encourage process as well as production. They provide residencies, laboratories, workshops, classes, development programs as well as presenting artist’s works. I think it’s this range of activity that builds artistic connections and conversations. It’s as valuable for emerging artists as it is for established ones because it’s the cross-pollination of practices that keeps the whole community dynamic. I moved to Melbourne six years ago not really knowing anyone and it’s through local organisations like Next Wave, Dance House, Arts House, Lucy Guerin Inc. and Aphids that I was able to make connections with my local peers and art heroes. And that’s because they intentionally offer accessible programs to engage artists at various stages of their practices and in various contexts. They’re not operating behind closed doors. They invest in creating connections.
I think this residency program at Vitals is a great example of this. That we can come and work with local artists and share ideas and processes and experiment and play and then share with audiences is really valuable. That applications are open to artists and thinkers across disciplines broadens the dialogue. That it’s quite difficult and uncertain and that there’s a real risk of failure is also important. It takes a lot of consideration and effort to bring a group like this together and we don’t really know what’s going to happen and it’s not a finished work and we need to find methods for many people to establish a connection with a process and an idea that’s already underway but certainly not finished! That’s where the interesting and exciting challenges are and organisations like Vitals take that on because they value artistic risk. We all really need that.
I guess the positive side to the whole arts-funding debacle has been the energy and action it’s provoked within the arts community. People have been spurred into action and into being really articulate and vocal about the importance of what they do within the arts community and what the arts do within the broader social structure. It’s also prompting us to scrutinise the existing ecology and have these conversations and be advocates for what we all do and carry placards that yell, ART MATTERS!