With residencies at Vitalstatistix in April and May, two projects now in development address questions of labour and pleasure, embodiment, sex work, and online/IRL interactions.
The Read is a collaboration between dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi and writer, sex worker and activist Tilly Lawless, investigating labour, desire, and bodies and their mechanics, drawing on Amrita’s interests in participatory research, intimate conversations and resilience.
Artists amira.h. and Monte Masi are collaborating on Goddess Ball’s Fun House, using text, performance and endurance to explore the online world of adult camming sites, the nature of work and play, and the true meaning of fun.
Jennifer Mills spoke with both these creative duos over Zoom about their works in progress, collaborative practices, friendship and trust, labour and time, adaptation, pleasure, and making meaningful work.
JM Starting with amira and Monte. Where did the idea spring from to work together?
Monte Masi amira’s and my relationship goes back a fair while, we both studied at the South Australian School of Art at around the same time, but this project is our first time directly collaborating. The first development was part of last year’s Adhocracy at Vitalstatistix and because of “the situation” (laughs), amira and I spent the Adhocracy weekend in 2021 working at a distance over Zoom.
This project really begins with you, amira, sharing an artist’s book – a piece of collected text that you had been amassing, which was text from camming sites’ chat rooms. amira eventually sent me a 2,000 page pdf of that which went by the same name, ‘Goddess Ball’s Fun House.’ And amira had mentioned sharing that text amongst a few people and inviting a response, so whoever had the honour of receiving the text might become obligated to create a response.
amira.h. The text was collected from October 2018 to 2020 sometime, but then I went back and got more, which I haven’t actually added to the ibook file I sent you… it’s not a pdf, it is specific because the pdf has lots of emojis and they don’t move but I wanted people to see what I was seeing on the sites, which is a lot of emojis, emoticons I call them, and they’re very different from other social media, very specific to these sites. So yep, it was a 2,000 or so page ibook.
JM That’s a weighty tome! Why did you start collecting this document?
a.h. Well, that’s what I do – I collect stuff, even at uni I would give people postcards and tell them to text me a response and then I created a book – I called it a book – of pages stuck on the wall, of people’s responses to me. That was in the hundreds, just text responses. I like collecting things.
JM It sounds like a very zine-influenced practice to me.
a.h. I do love zines, definitely.
MM You were going to curate an exhibition based on these responses.
a.h. That was Dominic Guerrera’s idea, he works at Country Arts, and he suggested we could show it at Nexus, but that just didn’t feel right. So then Monte asked me to be an assistant to a whole other project, and I was living on Kaurna land, in Adelaide, but now I’m not, so I had moved and Monte asked if I could still assist and I said I didn’t know, and then he said Vitals have this Adhocracy thing due tomorrow, let’s just quickly write up a proposal (laughs).
MM I saw us putting together the Adhocracy application as a continuation of your invitation to think of a response to that text. I thought we could create that response together.
JM I love that Adhocracy is a space that you can jump on at those moments. It sounds like this project has been through a few versions of itself, are you still taking a digital/online approach?
a.h. It is definitely morphing. Recently Monte said ‘I don’t want to have Zooms or livestreams in our work!’ We want it to be in real life, IRL.
JM There was a lot of excitement around the potential of online spaces but now there’s so much fatigue as well, people are really happy to be able to be physically with each other again.
a.h. It’s true. In my head I kind of see a live chat, you know, I definitely wouldn’t want to show any of the people on the websites, so I want to be able to zone in on the chat and have that accessible in the space, and that might be the only online component.
MM I am certainly cognisant of that snap-back to the way things were. It was great to have a lot of stuff over Zoom and suddenly people being quite invested in livestream, even for me as someone who thinks of themselves as able-bodied or reasonably mobile, it was a treat to be able to for example catch something in New York that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, let alone how it might have felt for someone who actually finds it incredibly difficult to get into a theatre or a performance space. But I think maybe it’s because the first time we really had a development for this work we had to do it over the screen, I just think a lot of the ideas and a lot of the forms that we’re imagining and dreaming of for this work are things that you do in front of other people.
JM Are you going to retain a participatory element of that, with people whose conversation you’re using as source material?
a.h. I have got some ideas, but Monte and I haven’t decided on anything concrete yet.
JM In terms of working out those kind of mechanisms or ideas, what’s your process as a collaboration?
a.h. We try to have Zoom meetings every 2-3 weeks. I text Monte all the time, probably annoyingly, if I get an idea I just send it to him, it’s very spontaneous for me and that’s what I like about it.
MM In some ways it has been fairly spontaneous but it’s also been quite discursive, in that sometimes we will have what is ostensibly a meeting which will end up with you, amira, telling me particular details of a particular period in your life or a particular kind of online web of intrigue, and going down a sort of rabbithole of different things, and trusting to do that while not knowing whether it really lives in the world of the work.
JM While we’re talking about these blurring boundaries I’m going to let Amrita and Tilly into the meeting. We’ve just been talking about collaboration and the way that art and life blend a little in the process. Amrita and Tilly were you friends before you started this project together?
Tilly Lawless We knew each other vaguely but we have definitely become closer through doing it.
Amrita Hepi Tilly made a really good point today, that because this has been so delayed it’s been a nice way to get to know each other. If we had started 2.5 years ago when we were originally supposed to start, maybe it would have been harder. I feel like there was material generated in speaking to each other and getting to know each other.
We had this conversation about the kind of economy that the arts runs on, the economy of friendship, that obviously there is a camaraderie, and it’s one of the most beautiful things, but that it can also be really abusive in some ways.
JM Totally. It can manifest as exploitative labour practices very quickly.
TL There is a level of trust that has come with knowing each other for the last few years that makes me feel like I can trust what Amrita says in the room.
I think that if we’d started not knowing each other well that I would have been quite tentative, and I don’t feel that. I feel quite confident in voicing my opinion. I only see the friendship as positive. I understand that people can exploit friendships in order to get certain artistic things from people or to not pay people for their labour but I haven’t felt like that one bit.
AH I said to Tilly at the start that sometimes there can be a tyranny of structurelessness: we’re improvising, we’re trying things, the hierarchies are different, and in the room I am performing in it too, I’m in it with you. But I am the director. I will be making the work. And I think there is a nice trust that comes from knowing that is your responsibility.
JM It builds trust when there’s a bit of clarity around roles.
TL A director is the same role you would get when, as a writer, you have an editor editing your work. You have someone that has more power than you, you’ve agreed to them having a say over what you’re doing, and you trust them in the critiques that they’re going to give… I wouldn’t say yes to being directed by someone unless I respected that they could direct me well.
JM I wanted to ask all four of you a bit more about process as labour but also process as play, and where that sits for you as a collaboration and how you manage that balance?
MM Before, I used that word discursive, but in some ways what I mean is also playful, as playful as you can be in a chat over Zoom, where yes, you are in theory trying to advance a project but you are also trying to work out what are the possible boundaries for the project so that you are creating some sense of what is inside the world of the work before we get started with our residency at Vitalstatistix. For us it has up to this point been about play. And we’ve been talking a lot about fun anyway within the work – we have this title of Goddess Ball’s Fun House so there’s been fun stuff and fool stuff. We’re getting a piece of neon fabricated that says ‘FUN.’
AH The way that I like to work is fast and relaxed, but I spent a good part of my early dance career working in companies that didn’t feel that way – where everything felt serious and sombre and we needed to get it right. I think I thought for a long time that it really needed to be that way. I use this analogy of when I stopped using birth control, when I switched to another kind of birth control and because it didn’t hurt I wasn’t sure it was working, I wasn’t sure it was real. There’s an idea that if I’m not having some kind of epiphany or I’m not having a struggle… I mean it really doesn’t need to be that way.
JM There’s this ‘if you’re not suffering, you’re not making work’ mentality. I think a lot of us have absorbed this hyper-employment model as sole traders or practitioners where we do push ourselves and work really long hours.
MM And that’s the logic of the project in some ways anyway. It always wants to see a peak at the moment of presentation, it always wants you to go a bit beyond yourself to get something done.
TL My relationship to it is a bit different because I have my job that I do for money and I work really hard at it and then everything I do that is creative is fun.
AH But also I wouldn’t have asked you to come and do it just for fun and I won’t pay you!
TL Obviously the pay matters, but I don’t have the sense of, ‘is art only real if there’s suffering involved?’ because I have always enjoyed the things that I do creatively, whereas I often don’t enjoy my daily work.
AH The other thing is not just if there’s suffering involved, but is the labour real if there isn’t a moment of transformation? If it’s hard and if it looks like it’s easy, is it still labour? Or if it has a feeling of effortlessness is it really labour?
JM And there’s a crossover there with sex work as well, if it’s pleasurable is it still labour?
TL My relationship to fun has changed since the pandemic. Before the pandemic I would have thought what a drag to go leave my house for two weeks and do this thing and be in a studio all day and now it’s so much fun to be in another state, and to be in a big room with someone. I have turned from being a glass half empty person before the pandemic to glass half full. I am getting scraps of fun out of everything.
JM There’s a real element of joy in returning to working physically close to each other … is that infecting the work, that craving for physicality and being in space?
AH Yeah, absolutely. Over Zoom, we haven’t figured out how to manufacture improvisation in quite the same way. Real time allows for an ease of working. Number one, this is how I have always known how to make. Number two, I think it is really much more enjoyable. Even if it is hard to be away from home, doing this in another way or not together would just not be possible.
MM For me and amira, the first stage development for this work was at Adhocracy in 2021 but we had to do that over Zoom. So I was in the basement at the Waterside hall chatting to amira on screen. There were a couple of Adelaide-based projects that did have their creative teams with them and I was eyeing them off with a slight jealousy: ‘They’re all talking to each other without a delay!’ I think in a way the thought of being in a room together has driven some of the ideas about what we’re going to do in our upcoming couple of weeks.
JM That desire has to infect the work, especially as the work is already about desire. The desire for physical closeness is already in it.
a.h. It’s really exciting to be performing IRL. I’ve been doing online stuff from about 2016, I was just doing that ‘for fun’ because it was so novel, like Periscope – but being in a physical space, I am imagining how we can utilise smell and taste and touch…
JM Can I ask you about the idea of failure and mistakes in your work? Monte, you have spoken about misperformance as a strategy, and that really resonates with my experience of being genderqueer.
MM We have these scripts that we follow – you could think about it as a dramatic script but you might also think about it as a cultural script – and by not performing well or by failing to appear in the proper way, it might be generative. So by misperforming that script you might be able to generate something new. Which is connected to ideas in The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam, and to writing by José Esteban Muñoz and other theorists.
JM There is also great potential for comedy in that.
MM Performing things in a totally committed but very wrong way is connected to what clowns do, and playing the fool.
a.h. I have always embraced failure. I mean, growing up as a queer Muslim woman, I thought I was going to kill myself by the time I was fifteen…
JM Society tells you that you don’t deserve to live.
a.h. Yes. I’m the eldest child out of four, I’m the one who is the fuckup – I don’t own my house, I am unmarried, I don’t have kids, to society I am a failure, so I have embraced that in lots of my work. I fuck up and you have to accept it. I have accepted that I don’t adhere to rules, even rules I set myself.
JM: When you’re discovering your creativity as a queer artist, it’s a huge lesson to know that that’s where the sparks are, in the fuckups and the failures and the not fitting right.
AH Definitely in that stuff. But also in the mundanity of the existence of the failure. We’ve been asking about assumptions. What do people assume about what it is that you’re doing at work? And what’s the reality? So one of the exercises we have is I ask Tilly, what do you think people assume about sex work, or about writing? And vice versa, around the labour of being a dancer. What a day of work is like, what the architecture looks like in the space, where you are, what you’re doing with your body, what happens? The things we think are mundane actually reveal something about the unconscious, about what the other is assuming about us.
JM And it absolutely reveals the structures under that work as well, physical structures and temporal structures and the embodiment of the labour that you’re doing – a lot of creative labour is quite invisible to the general public.
AH There are three zones, in the way I’ve been thinking. There’s the desire to do – the desire to act in both our labours. Then there’s the labour itself and what it’s worth or what its value is perceived to be. And then there are examples of other people in labour, or other objects that are desirable, that feed into this.
TL There is some assumed knowledge with the audience in that we assume they know that both dance and sex work are labour.
AH But then there’s what it’s worth, and what it looks like, and what happens before the event. What leads you into a performance, and what makes it good? How do you make something good? That is actually kind of nebulous.
JM With literature and dance, there’s a perception that they spring almost spontaneously from the body, that you don’t require external resources to make them.
AH Yes, ‘you can do it anywhere.’ I was talking to a friend who wrote a beautiful article and they said it really poured out of them, and I love that word pour. There is so much stored that is maybe conscious or unconscious or that maybe we just heard yesterday that makes its way into the room, the rehearsal room. You realise how much you know about something that you didn’t know you knew.
JM That deep archival knowledge that you have to draw on from longer practice is one of the great pleasures of getting older in a creative career. And also your networks grow and so your ability to draw on others’ knowledge grows.
AH You have a reference point and maybe you have watched work that you can then take into your own methodology, because there’s a tone of understanding, rather than just going: I need it to be good, and how the fuck do I get there.
As an emerging artist, what I didn’t know… maybe there was also nothing to lose.
MM In some ways I would agree. When I was an emerging artist you did feel like you were running on energy. I couldn’t even imagine what the possible consequences would be of failing, I was just doing stuff.
AH As you get better, you have a better understanding of your own aesthetic.
Now I am thinking about things more sustainably, like if I’m making this work maybe I want to be able to show it in a different context, not be [hammers hands] bang-bang-bang. The Read feels like it’s been ruminating for a while and I’d like for it to be able to take the time it needs to take and also have the chance to be in different formats and different contexts. I know a bit more about what I’m interested in in terms of subject and material.
TL I’ve found it really useful not to tie my identity to what I create. If it’s not good, it doesn’t matter too much. I’m still a person beyond what I created, my friends are still going to like me, I’m still going to have a great life. Not everything you do ends up being as you’ve imagined it before you do it. So I just try to not tie myself to those things too much. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t put in all your energy or all your hopes. But your life is full beyond what you created as an artist.
AH I worked with a dance theatre company called Marrugeku for a long time and it taught me to make from this reactionary place. In some ways I still do, something will niggle at me. Sometimes the politic of something overwhelms the poetic; it can suck out the fun. You think you have to perform the politic by which it is perceived.
This is not what Marrugeku does, they do it with a poetics that then infects the politics. With making now, it doesn’t feel as fraught with having to express the politics, because it is already there. And it can be fun.
TL I realised quite quickly that I don’t want it to be a professional career, I love writing and I will always write but I don’t want to pursue it as a career, it ruins my enjoyment of it. I like it too much to ruin that.
MM I have seen people do really weird things in order to try and find or keep that sense of pleasure or openness alive. With all sorts of artists, anyone who is able to derive some income from what they make, there is a recognition that once you start to have people really interested in what you’re doing or you’re creating opportunities that are being recognised by others, that there is a danger that what makes a thing fun and possible can be extinguished or leave you.
JM I think it’s also a really exciting thing that art does, finding these cracks where things that are work don’t feel like work. It’s possible to do that in every job – every job can and should have those moments of ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this, it’s so fun.’
AH I have a query around that because I don’t just make art for the good feeling. I am not necessarily interested in making people feel good or entertained. I guess it’s like the panic and stretch zones, still trying to find the way into being enjoyable but there is also the fiscal financial stuff that comes into it. Then there’s this other thing: a part of my revenue stream, if I’m honest, is using dance as a commercial tool. So there’s movement direction for advertisements, or myself as the subject modelling for things and talking about the fact that I’m a dancer. People ask ‘how could you do that?’
But are we only ever doing it for a good feeling or for our community? That’s part of it, but I do not believe for a second that that is the only reason we’re doing it.
JM Maybe the pleasure is not the end point. The pleasure is like a window into meaningful work. It’s a clue that the universe has left us that we can follow.
AH To purpose. We’ve been talking about that in our work, about identity and class, and the big example we’ve been talking about is the allegory of the turnspit dog. The turnspit dog would run on this wheel like a hamster wheel that would turn the meat and cook it. Then at the turn of the industrial revolution, with electricity, all of a sudden it didn’t have a purpose anymore, and it was then bred out.
Being in the Port, I think about work and art and labour, and striking. When workers talk about striking, they withdraw their labour, but for artists that doesn’t make sense – they’ll just find somebody else. And then that leads into thinking about the gig economy, and it’s all so soupy – personally finding the pleasure and purpose fits into something that’s a much bigger machination.
JM I feel like I’m haunted now by the ghost of my future redundancy.
AH There is that nebulous fear: a GPT-3 AI wrote this…
JM Oh absolutely. There are already AIs that could substitute for some of my freelance work quite easily.
AH I am so curious and suspicious about that dream that we’ll be overwhelmed by machines. The fear that we wouldn’t be able to work anymore if the machines take over. I think it’s almost a desire: ‘Oh no, don’t take the work away!’
a.h. Talking about labour, the start of Goddess Ball’s Fun House came about through my body being so injured that I couldn’t work. So I was a personal shopper for one of the huge supermarkets for nine months, and then ended up with carpal tunnel, hip bursitis, tendonitis… I couldn’t walk anymore. And a friend suggested to get into the camming world. I was living on my own, didn’t have a fridge for about six months, and I was on the dole.
I didn’t start this for pleasure. It was out of pain. Survival sex work.
Andy Kaufman is a big influence on this work. Andy only does something if it’s fun, if it’s not fun he stops doing it. But if you delve into his online world at the moment, it’s not fun at all.
The root word of fun is actually fool. Monte and I have done a lot of research about the Fool card in tarot, which is the zero. Not the start and not the end, but a liminal card. I feel like I have been on a Fool’s journey with these online lives that I have lived. I’ve played the fool and I’ve been made fun of. Fun isn’t always pleasurable.
Photo credit: Emma Luker for Replay Creative (@replaycreative on Instagram)