Rebecca Conroy

Vitalstatistix spoke with artist Rebecca Conroy about her interests in economics, labour and artist-led study of these topics, along with her new work Iron Lady, in development with Vitalstatistix and Performance & Art Development Agency. 

Rebecca Conroy is an interdisciplinary director, curator, producer, researcher and writer, working across community, PFsite-based events, discursive practices, and intercultural collaborations.  She has worked with key arts organisations in Australia including Performance Space, Campbelltown Art Centre, Pact Theatre, ArtSpace, Urban Theatre Projects, Watch this Space, Lismore Regional Art Gallery, as well as collaborating with artists in Sydney and internationally, in the USA, South East Asia and Europe.

Iron Lady is in residence at The Mill, presented by Vitalstatistix and PADA, during the Feast Festival in November

Rebecca, can you tell us a little about your practice and your artistic communities?

Rebecca Conroy: I grew up in the performing arts, but have been straddling disciplines ever since I graduated from theatre school in the 90s. Moving into artist run spaces introduced me to the visual arts world, and now I use my art-swipe-card to gain access to economics, housing, urban planning, and the like. I feel like my practice has always been morphing and lurching in these kind of passionate increments, some conscious and some less so—more like a blurred connection of messy evolving lines of enquiry.

I am interested in work that is cheeky, oppositional, and sort of ruptures things; I prefer straddling, mimicry and Trojan strategies—to survive and maybe avoid capture. Work that is self-aware of its power as art operating within the institution—a self-conscious art.

I also use it therapeutically or as a solution to a problem. Yurt Empire was certainly this, as a response to the housing crisis in 2011 which evolved into a large-scale collaborative experiment; making installations as dwellings we attempted to smuggle them onto a series of development sites south of Sydney. In some ways, I like to make pragmatic works that appear on the outside to be ridiculous propositions, but are actual tools or weapons, instruments that can be wielded, mostly as disguises. I think that’s one of the distinct advantages of the art field—it can use its licence to say what it is and is not, and to alter the frame in which it is interpreted.

When I returned to Sydney in 2004 from a decade living and working in Indonesia, I needed to seek out the ‘kampung’ and ended up in the inner-city neighbourhood of Chippendale setting up a warehouse. With a bunch of others, we co-founded ‘The Wedding Circle’ which ran studios, a gallery and experimental event space. Maybe from a deep longing for Java, the local laneways (or ‘gang’ as they are called in Indonesian) became little capillaries connecting all of our warehouse spaces. Every era feels definitive, but this really felt like the last hurrah for lots of artist run warehouses in that part of Sydney, whilst also being the time when Sydney artists were starting to connect with their nearest neighbours. We used this as a springboard to create an exchange and festival event over four years with artist run spaces and communities from Java. Naturally called it Gang Festival, and published a book called “Gang re:publik”. I like occupying terrain, or wearing its DNA and seeing what happens if you just replace or delete or alter the gene sequence.

You have a body of work and collaborations that explore economics, and do so through artist-led research models. Can you tell us a bit about some of these projects such as Dating an Economist and the Marrickville School of Economics?

RC: Yeah for the past 3 years I have been interested in the superficial distinctions drawn between art and economy and creating works that respond to the nexus of these seemingly disparate fields—I really think they are both involved in the business of making stuff up and speculating, and determining what is of ‘value’. I also enjoy the opposition and friction between them. This is essentially where the ‘Dating an Economist’ project came from. I wanted to reclaim the authority that economists assume in determining and knowing ‘value’, and contest this in a less formal, more intimate setting, which introduced factors of the unknown and unpredictable. By placing them in a date situation, it also put into play feelings, emotions, and the irrational – or rather the way the human behaves in relation to gendered power.

The MSE (Marrickville School of Economics) is another example where I tried to talk back to the authority of the London School of Economics and question the general hegemony of economy as a field of discourse and ideological blunt instrument shaping everything, leading us to “knowing the price of all things and the value of nothing”. The MSE by-line was ‘Let’s unfuck the Economy’ and its challenge was to expose the inadequacy of economic thinking to our worlds. It also questioned the increasing influence that bankers and business people have in the arts world. For example, Ian Narev the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank is also the chairperson of the Sydney Theatre Company. Imagine if artists were on the board of banks? Why is there this implicit and presumptuousness when it comes to knowledge, expertise and value? So MSE was a curriculum that I designed to offer artists access points and pathways into interrogating the assumptions of these disciplines. It was also an opportunity to offer up all the research I had been doing as a series of curated reading lists and literature that was responding specifically to the issues that affect artists, in particular how the rise of flexible casualised labour and a precariat workforce was approaching the condition of the artist-labourer. There is a bunch of art-labour stuff happening in Europe and North America but not so much in Australia. With MSE, which also had an iteration this year as part of the Folkestone Fringe in the UK, the intention was to generate some interest and collectivise knowledge and contacts in this field. The sessions were curated around a thematic and readings, and culminated in a presentation with a non-artist or collaborative project that had some pedagogical use-value.

Much discussion of new economies is basically about promoting entrepreneurship and capitalist ‘innovation’. Yet there are ideas and models that challenge neoliberalism too. What are some of the key ideas around new economies that you are most interested in?

It’s a really interesting time when the distinction around words and concepts like community and sharing have been so thoroughly co-opted and integrated into experiential capital. So part of the ‘fun’ at the moment is finding yourself at events that bring together these segments in misplaced and confusing ways.

Recently in Paris I was fortunate to attend ‘Ouishare’, an international gathering of share economy, alternative economy, and community led enterprise activists, entrepreneurs, and advocates. Elsewhere I have described it like TedX meets Vivid Sydney with the catering done by Hillsong. In other ways, the existence of something like Ouishare is testimony to the tenacity of capitalism.

Instead of addressing the systemic flaws—poverty, climate change, housing crises—as driven by the current configurations of power, well-meaning, mostly white activists, add yet more innovative “solutions” to the mix (as if a lack of ideas was the problem) and in the process, elide existing struggles and erase the histories experiences and lessons learnt.

I tend to find these spaces fascinating to the extent that I am puzzled as to why someone could so much time creating a solution to a ‘problem’ but seemingly zero time understanding how the problem emerges and continues to persist, in the first place. I am conscious particularly that white folk, and particularly men, need to put more energy into listening to those who are at the coal face of those problems.

To this extent I don’t push for artist led solutions, because I think artists have some kind of magic solution, but simply because as a field of practice and body of ideas and approach this is the industry or sector that I relate to, and have experience with.

I think in this way also that artists need to see themselves as part of these same dialogues that are happening around different ways of doing economy—and by extension the practice-led seems to be a great way to be shifting politics. Whether your hands are stuck in soil, or energy systems, or food, or other materials, the doing and the practice I think are great vehicles to rethink political economy and ways of being-in-the-world.

You recently spent three months in Europe for a range of residencies and conferences exploring some of these ideas. Can you tell us about this?

I spent time at PAF (Performing Arts Forum) just outside of Paris. This is an old convent, one-time-cult, and now thriving artist community which hosts “meetings” and themed residencies for large and small groups. It’s quite unique and quite my cup of tea, mixing as they do philosophy and critical enquiry form an artist led practice. I also spent 2 weeks in Tuscany (just awful) with a bunch of great thinkers and community workers learning about P2P economy and alternative models for community housing, food, energy, and governance shaped by municipalities. My contribution was thinking through the artist led-laundromat that is currently in development (see below). It was so incredible to listen learn and just bear witness to the sheer volume of things happening in this field. Artists should be really excited about this. It’s good news for us!

Like women and artists generally, Iron Lady is a service provider and she is also in the business of emotional labour. Can you tell us about her and what you will be doing when you are in Adelaide in November?

Iron Lady emerged from my interest in libidinal economies, the role of intimacy, and my predilection for female assassins and the deceptively harmless, in particular how the subversive can be folded into the ordinary and the everyday.

I was also fascinated with how many clichés I could pile into the one-dimensional character as device, and still generate ambiguity. So obviously Margaret Thatcher is one dimension of the Iron Lady, marked as she is by her lack of empathy and shrewd economic rationalism.

Underlining this is the humble domestic ironing service which underscores all other forms of gendered laboured performed by women in the household, which is why the Iron Lady includes these value-added services on her artisanal menu. Woman as soft generous sounding board, Woman as honest appraisal, Woman as bleeding heart, Iron Lady can perform all these. Illicit affair? Iron Lady can also do that.

Secretly she’s also spraying your collars with Oxytocin—an enzyme that makes you emotionally vulnerable.

During my two weeks, I will be operating a boutique artisanal ironing service, which only caters to cis-white men working in the corporate sector. Essentially, it’s a data mining exercise, a bit like military drills you carry out with friendly combatants. Whilst servicing this ‘market segment’ I will be gathering useful knowledge about how they operate. I will solicit my clientele using a combination of stealth marketing and door to door sales work. And a very good-looking outfit. I will be offering a basic wash and steam press with a free consultation to determine which of the nine value added services from the menu they would like. The work is a made-in-residency work and will expand and move in as yet unknown direction as necessary. For example, recently Iron Lady was given the opportunity to make a cheeky foray into Sydney Contemporary art fair. Moving through the ‘art-kelp’ as my designer Emma Price likes to say with affection, with my business card and my Assassins swag, I discovered that I am going to have to have a firm grip on the narrative otherwise I risk a participant feeling like the jokes on them. OH NO!

Artworks like Iron Lady, and another project you are developing called A Very Beautiful Laundromat, can act as businesses and art simultaneously. They could be seen as a type of public art, or as a type of social enterprise. Are they or are they not? Can you tell us more about the artistic framework of your work?

This is a great question which I always have fun trying to answer as a way of pushing the thinking about art outside of all the tired binaries—art/politics etc.

Essentially I like making work that does both at the same time, or that can shift from one to another constantly. Life is perhaps too short for things to only exist as ‘art’ and not also be threaded into the lived experiences as a response to making life happen, just as social enterprises seem like missed opportunities to also express art or have ridiculous moments, rough up the edges a bit, or carve out some space for deep beautiful thinking.

The artist run laundromat is a response to the feast and famine economy and will provide occasional paid shifts for artists in between gigs, whilst also being a gathering space for the social and the discursive. I am working with three other top ladybirds in the arts and finance worlds to make this come alive. Our business outfit is called Money Laundering.

What could people read to know more about these ideas?

The websites for the projects have some great resources, in particular:

Other artists whose work I dig in the art/economy field are: