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2 The Rounds Project 2010 This publication is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permissions. All artwork and images copyright the artists unless specified otherwise. Enquiries should be directed to the Executive Editor. First published in Australia in 2010 by The Rounds Project in association with the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry: Rounds / edited by Matthew Giles and Sarah Rowbottam. 1st ed. ISBN: (pbk.) Art, Australian. Art, Modern 21st century. Conceptual art Australia. Artists Australia. Giles, Matthew. Rowbottam, Sarah Publications Team Editor: Matthew Giles Executive Editor: Sarah Rowbottam Proofreading: Matthew Giles, Katie Lenanton, Georgia Malone, Todd Marsh, Clare Peake, Leigh Robb, Sarah Rowbottam Introductory Essay: Leigh Robb Essayists: Christina Chau, Matthew Giles, Jessyca Hutchens, Katie Lenanton, Andrew Nicholls, Andrew Purvis, Andrew Varano, Gemma Weston Photographer: Traianos Pakioufakis Design: tonne gramme Printer: Scott Print Exhibition Team Curator: Sarah Rowbottam Artists: Neil Aldum, Rebecca Baumann, Tim Carter, Elise/Jürgen, Shannon Lyons, Bennett Miller, Sarah Rowbottam, George Egerton-Warburton PICA Curator: Leigh Robb PICA Director: Amy Barrett-Lennard Installation Manager: Janet Carter Installation Team: Lyle Branson, Claire Canham, Jason Hendrik Hansma, Anthony Kelly, Damon Lockwood Production Manager: Andrew Beck Rounds was developed by Matthew Giles and Sarah Rowbottam in June 2009, and was realised at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts between 26 June 25 August Cover: Rounds handover process, 2010 Wall collage by Royce Alido, Shannon Lyons and Sarah Rowbottam featuring materials passed between the Rounds artists in the four cycles. Constructed in PICA s tower studio as part of the Rounds Critical Writing Residency from 27 January to 5 April, Photo: Sarah Rowbottam. All materials courtesy of the artists. FOREWORD 6 INTRODUCTION 8 CURATORIAL NOTE 16 THE WORK 18 ESSAYS/INTERVIEWS 86 MILLER 88 ALDUM 98 LYONS 110 CARTER 122 BAUMANN 134 ROWBOTTAM 146 EGERTON-WARBURTON 158 ELISE/JÜRGEN 170 ROUNDS IN THE MAKING 178 BIOGRAPHIES 186 LIST OF WORKS 188 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 190

3 INTRODUCTION THE WHOLE PICTURE LEIGH ROBB T HERE IS NO END TO INFLUENCE, DECLARES AUTHOR HAROLD BLOOM in his acclaimed but still controversial book about the force of literary tradition, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 1 The Rounds project embraces this mantra as a premise for generating a complex web of artworks, interviews and essays by a peer group of emerging artists and writers all living and working in Perth, Western Australia. The 1 H Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1973, p. xi. In this book about a theory of poetry, but which has been important in positing a theory on artistic influence at large, Bloom challenges the notion that literary tradition is an inspirational and empowering source of influence on modern poets. Instead, Bloom argues, for poets after Milton the achievements of their great precursors are obstructions to their own aspirations to originality. Bloom interprets influence is a threat which strong poets protect themselves from by deliberatively "misreading" their predecessors through six techniques. project, curated by Sarah Rowbottam, re-evaluates the notion of influence and the way an artist responds, not to hierarchical tradition and great historic precursors, but specifically to the real effect that a close artistic community of friends has on their work. Rounds, then, is a prescient undertaking that negotiates a lateral strategy of making. By offering a demanding and rigorous process for all involved that resulted in twenty-nine sophisticated artworks and this anthology of brilliant texts, Rounds has welcomed the effects of influence, and negotiates anew the issues raised through collaboration. At first the Rounds project sounds simple enough: a composite of three parts: Part I The process through which nine emerging artists, hand over and receive artworks over four rounds; Part II The exhibition of twenty-nine works by the artists generated through the process; Part III The publication in which eight writers track and critique the Rounds process and interview the individual artists in the lead-up to the exhibition. However, once Rounds is unpacked and its participants named and numbered, it s clear that this is an expansive project that cannot easily be reduced. As such, through the exhibition and publication, it posits a timely and successful methodology for interpreting artistic practice something which is unwieldy, pluralistic and always unpredictable. Part I - The Process Initially conceived by artist Sarah Rowbottam and writer Matthew Giles, the concept for Rounds was an elaborate platform designed to engage a select group of their peers artistically and critically. The artists, Neil Aldum, Rebecca Baumann, Tim Carter, George Egerton- Warburton, Elise/Jürgen, Shannon Lyons, Bennett Miller and Sarah Rowbottam had all studied at Curtin University of Technology in WA, encountering each other at different times during their studies. They gradually galvanised as an active group keen to make, exhibit and generate continuous discussion about contemporary art in their city. On a basic level, Rounds grew out of the need to formalise some of the dialogues between artists since graduation from art school and create an opportunity for ideas to be seen and heard, and hopefully with a significant exhibition and book to boot. There is a history to this project with First Page, conceived of by Rounds editor Matthew Giles and Rounds essayist Jessyca Hutchens. It was an experimental anthology published in 2008 that commissioned twentytwo young Perth artists to produce a chapter of writing and artwork and resulted in an inspiring summary of emerging art. Before and after this, Giles and Rounds essayist Katie Lenanton, directed the wildly popular Love is my Velocity Cookbooks I and II, which were published in 2007 and They were guides to Perth s music scene which each featured recipes contributed by the roughly fifty bands, and which also included artwork by sixty of Perth s emerging artists that responded to the bands and their music. The fact that this book was received so well, sold out in fact, indicates a public appetite for these kinds of projects that harness and collect creative capital in Perth and create opportunities for artists while at the same time setting them a distinct task. Following on from this success, Matthew Giles together with Sarah Rowbottam decided to expand the concept exponentially with Rounds. They brought together a particularly close group of artists and lead them on a year long journey of relentless art making, regular deadlines and interrogation and by doing so called into question their most fundamental pursuit: how and why one makes and engages with art. Philosophical, sporting as well as political metaphors run riot when one ponders the semiotic root of the project title, Rounds. Round denotes a circle, something without beginning or end, something full, or complete, like a round dozen. But equally, it can suggest an approximation, as in a round guess. In a sporting tournament, usually competitors each play one match per round, winners advance to the next round while losers go home. On the other hand, a round-table is defined as a meeting of parties or people on equal terms for discussion. Such a list of competing definitions really is at the heart of the Rounds project. It is at once a hermetic, circular structure of repeated actions (giving and receiving) and a competition of sorts, a kind of wrestling of egos. It is also a site for exchange and on equal terms thereby critically elevating the level of discussion about contemporary artistic practice in the process. Strategies are often necessary to keep the creative and critical wheels turning. There are many precedents in art history that have used games, strategies and collaboration to harness creative potential. The Exquisite Corpse technique is said to be invented by the Surrealists in Paris in 1925 and is similar to an old parlour game, aptly titled Consequences, in which players write on a sheet of paper in turn, fold it to conceal their section of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contrib ution. 9

4 Opposite page (from top): Exhibition entrance featuring Rounds matrix by tonne gramme, 2010 Rounds installation view featuring (clockwise from top): Shannon Lyons, Round Three Untitled (BM_SL_RB_10), 2010 (installation view) Plywood, pine, paint, wood filler, MDF, plexiglass, tin 67 x 67 x 5cm (each) Rebecca Baumann, Round Two OFF/ON, 2010 (installation view) Drum fan, white streamer, cyclic timer Dimensions variable George Egerton-Warburton, Round Three Welcome to Mirth, 2010 (installation view) Rap song with beat made of chicken sounds and meth lab explosion sounds, desk, radio, stickers Dimensions variable Photos: Traianos Pakioufakis The Surrealists transposed this language game to drawing, instead allocating each artist a portion of paper to a section of the body, starting with the head, upper body, hips and legs. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism said it started for fun, but as with many Surrealist techniques, such play and experimentation became creatively generative and was at the heart of their manifesto to see the world differently, and act outside of the binds of convention. However, in Rounds each artist does not literally or materially add to the work of their fellow artists. Instead, they used the received artwork as a catalyst for making an entirely new work, which would in turn be passed on. Although the series of handovers or rounds was repeated three times by each artist, the sequence of artists to whom the work was handed to and received from was different for each artist. So, in no single case would any artist experience the same order of influence. As with Exquisite Corpse, the joy in the game is the element of the unknown, and the chance encounter of multiple voices collectively contributing to a new story or drawing, or in the Rounds case, an exhibition and book, which could never have been produced or written alone. Beyond the Surrealists, the concept of artists sharing, exchanging and collaborating has a long history in modern and contemporary art from Black Mountain College to the 1972 Womanhouse project, the landmark collaborative feminist installation in a house in Hollywood organised by the Feminist Art Program at California Institute of the Arts; to the more recent example of the Canadian communal weekly drawing project of the Royal Art Lodge collective (founded 1996 and recently concluded in 2008). In particular, Black Mountain College, the hugely influential experimental community in North Carolina ran from , started by John Andrews Rice and included Josef Albers and Charles Olsen amongst its teachers. Theirs is a different, but history-changing story of a small group of men and women who founded a college based on the idea of a community of individuals working and learning together and that education happened everywhere. But no one had an easy time being in such a relentlessly intense, interrogative environment. As Martin Duberman wrote, Black Mountain College showed the possibilities of a group of individuals committing themselves to a common enterprise, resilient enough to absorb the conflict and then sometimes, brave enough to be transformed by its accompanying energies. 2 Black Mountain was completely unique, but to some extent the Rounds artists, throughout this project, also collectively attempted to find some consonance in their ideas and practice, albeit temporarily. However, in doing so, they put themselves at risk of great exposure by allowing their fellow artists (and eventually the audience) be privy to the actual and private means through which they interact with the world and respond to each other through their artwork. There are many other known artistic friendships or partnerships who maintained their individual practices but who thrived on this peer exchange and would beg, steal and borrow from one another, openly and productively from Man Ray and Max Ernst to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A particularly charged example to reflect on is the relationship between German artist Dieter Roth and English artist Richard Hamilton who first began collaborating properly in Vincente Todoli describes their involvement as an intermittent collateral collision and an extended dialogue fostered by mutual admiration and respect of two of the most idiosyncratic artists that appeared since the post-war period. 3 Hamilton speaks of the their collaborative experience as a synergetic leap, the possibility of achieving jointly some plateau that neither partner could reach alone. 4 These ideas of friendship, respect or even outright collision of intent similarly fuelled the Rounds project. Again the notion of collective engagement with ideas and exchanging of work as a means of transcending individual potential is at stake in Rounds. Often this doesn t occur without a struggle or a battle of wills, and the outcome is hard to judge, but it calls into question the fitting adage of whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Part II: The Exhibition Sarah Rowbottam and Matthew Giles proposed the exhibition component of Rounds to the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in The exhibition took place nearly one year later from 26 June 25 August From a curatorial point of view, the structure of the exhibition was engaging and different, which, due to the fact that each artist would be producing four works, dismantled the usual group show methodology. In many group or thematic exhibitions in museums and galleries, there is a single work which, by default, operates as a synthetic statement of the artist s practice at large. What Rounds presented was the opportunity to see four works by each artist, a mini solo show of sorts which multiplied the access points for the viewer and gave a generous and more rounded overview of the artists interests and ideologies. From an institutional point of view, Rounds constitutes a survey of an incredibly active and committed group 10 2 M Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1972, p V Todoli, Introduction, in Dieter Roth/ Richard Hamilton - Collaborations: Relations Confrontations, Edition Hansjörg Mayer, London and Fundação de Serralves, Porto, 2003, p Richard Hamilton quoted by V Todoli, in Dieter Roth/ Richard Hamilton - Collaborations: Relations Confrontations, Edition Hansjörg Mayer, London and Fundação de Serralves, Porto, 2003, p. 7.


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7 CARTER BAUMANN EGERTON-WARBURTON LYONS On/Off, :9 High definition video White with Grey Stripes: 0.10 Light Yellow: 0.15 Light Blue: 0.11 Green: 0.16 Red: 0.09 Light Blue: 0.19 Green: 0.14 Black: 0.42 This page: production image for Round 1, 2010 Opposite page: On/Off, 2010 (video stills) TIM CARTER ROUNDS PROCESS In my responses for each of the rounds, elements of the received works were translated through the interests and methods of my own practice. I haven t explored outside of what is distinguishable and engag ing for me as a practitioner, as my desire for this project, whilst going through its rigorous framework, was to present a body of work that recognisably addressed my practice s concerns. I found quite early on that I didn t enjoy responding in an an alytical way to the specific agenda of each work. I found it more engaging to tease out threads a combination of conceptual and formal elements that could then be re-interpreted. When I started to operate in this more instinctual way I found the outcomes much more inter esting and hence my involvement in the project was sustained. ROUND ONE, ON/OFF With this being the starting point for the project, it was important for me to pass on a work that represented my practice in an accurate way. On/Off met this criterion as it examines a seemingly mundane activity the ritual of dressing through the use of the video camera, in particular via direct and intimate proximity to the body. The viewer is presented with a heightened account while the camera maps the ensuing process of fabric enveloping flesh. As a series and seconds in length, each gesture becomes a minute moment of transformation in which the common turns into foreign experience. 54

8 CARTER BAUMANN EGERTON-WARBURTON LYONS OFF/ON, 2010 Drum fan, white streamer, cyclic timer Dimnesions variable Photo: Bewley Shaylor REBECCA BAUMANN ROUND TWO, OFF/ON When I received Tim Carter s work On/Off, my interest was in the simple and repetitive action of taking a t-shirt on and off. My response was sparked by the title of the work. I was interested in what the words implied differing states of activity and inactivity. A minimal intervention made up of a fan, a solitary streamer and a timer, OFF / ON offers a four-minute cycle of activity and dormancy, sitting in a space between kinetic sculpture and drawing. 56

9 CARTER BAUMANN EGERTON-WARBURTON LYONS Welcome to Mirth, 2010 Rap song with beat made of chicken sounds and meth lab explosion sounds, desk, radio, stickers Dimensions variable This page: Welcome to Mirth, 2010 (detail) Opposite page: Welcome to Mirth, 2010 (installation view) Photos: Traianos Pakioufakis GEORGE EGERTON-WARBURTON ROUND THREE, WELCOME TO MIRTH Responding to Rebecca Baumann s streamer work with the line I schemed a tumour of merriment to grow, I wrote a rap song to include a wider and more personal critique of a certain genre of the learned, as informed by a correlating investigation into the philosophical notion of the good life. The structural element of the vehicle, from which the rap song is played, has a relationship to Becky s sculpture, and it has also adopted several different meanings over time, of varying relevance. 58

10 CARTER BAUMANN EGERTON-WARBURTON LYONS Untitled (GEW_SL_10), unique digital prints 24 x 33cm (framed) This page: Untitled (GEW_ SL_10), 2010 (scans) Opposite page: Untitled (GEW_SL_10), 2010 (installation view) Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis SHANNON LYONS ROUND FOUR, UNTITLED (GEW_SL_10) I had a conversation with George Egerton-Warburton about an A4 colour print out he gave me of a 90s tape deck, adorned with stickers, which sat on a little wooden table in his home. George told me this table had once been painted red and that he sanded it back to the raw timber. We also spoke about the idea of joy and the importance of aesthetics in regards to our respective practices. The outcome for Round Four is an attempt to synthesise some of this conversation, combining it with my own affinity for working with additive and subtractive processes. 60

11 NEIL ALDUM, NEW CENTURY CRAFTSMAN: MAKING AND MANIFESTING THE ROUNDS PROCESS BY KATIE LENANTON IT WOULD BE REMISS OF ME NOT TO POINT OUT THAT AS WELL AS STICKING TO ROUNDS FRENETIC PACE, Neil Aldum (born 1985 in Heidelberg, South Africa) is embarking on a degree in sustainability while preparing for his second trip to the Melbourne Art Fair to present new works for Gallery East. He measures the success of his output, in part, by the energy he expends, and is never one to shirk the laborious process of refining an object. It s an attitude indicative of his verve and drive, and summarises his material-based approach to art-making. Maintaining a practice that balances his ideas of beauty with a precise understanding of materiality, he often finds that his outcomes seem more important that the collection of ideas that inspired them. I think in part, this is because at the crux of his practice is a craftsman, someone who strives for the feeling of designing an object then seeing it in its totality. I admire his confident inquiry into the nature of materials, and how his structures manifest the pleasure their maker takes in controlling and manipulating his preferred materials. The pace of the Rounds project suits Neil s approach to art-making, which marries a thirst for tacit knowledge with a desire to make tangible imagined structures. He possesses skills that are difficult to transfer, verbalise or write down; while they can be taught, it s the student s prerogative to master them. He weaves, crochets, sews and embroiders, harnesses kinetics, and builds sound structures using a builder s palette of construction techniques and materials. He deals beautifully with the wall, and has recently branched out into freestanding kinetic outcomes that are appealing, sometimes interactive, and increasingly take on the properties of leisure equipment. No video to date, but this relates to his appetite for acquiring manual skills. Sometimes, he tells me, he enjoys refining the skills he learns more than the results. Although he researches and develops ideas through scholarly methodologies, teasing out his approach to a subject and often arriving at satisfactory conclusions, it s the materials, techniques and labour that are at the forefront of his practice. Rounds has benefitted from this maker s approach, as Neil, frustrated when overthinking the ideas behind his works, spent time crafting four standalone objects for the PICA galleries. On the occasion of our fifth meeting for Rounds, Neil led me down an overgrown path into the concrete shed at the back of his share house. I had stopped by to see the second incarnation of his Round One work. His first, a kinetic pendulum structure whose form was inspired by the antiquated oil-donkey, failed during the crafting process and didn t progress beyond a prototype. Neil was uneasy about the work to begin with, later confiding he knew a key element was missing. Pressured by the pace of the project, he believed it was essential to make decisions and stick with them, resulting in a state of temporary denial in which his initial idea seemed interesting enough to sustain the meaningful interactions and outcomes he was planning to transmit to the viewer. As the only work in the series whose ideas were generated by him, it s understandable he would apply a rigorous editing process to the final outcome. So he pondered the economic theory of the triple bottom line, the shift away from industrialised development methodologies, and the impact it will have on the way economies are run. The aim was to produce a kinetic work that speaks of conflicting forces and upheaving dominant patterns of thought and decision-making by offering the viewer a choice to activate the work and dictate its patterns of movement within a space. The outcome a swing-set structure mounted on wheels is loaded with tension. Contractionary Physical Policy captures the interplay between an individual vs. society paradigm the inherent conflicts within established strategies that became evident to Neil as he witnessed a culture moving away from traditional economic methods for development and progress. A familiar piece of play equipment encumbered by anxiety and conflicting forces, it will imbue the gallery with the lightness and sense of play that the artist so admires in works of his peers. For those who derive overwrought conceptualism in contemporary art, Neil is a likeable purveyor of an alternate approach an earnest new century craftsman whose tacit knowledge overfloweth. He is doggedly committed to the process of crafting an object, and struggles to leave works unfinished. The un-sanded edges and raw, knotted wood of his Rounds works represent a momentary reprieve from the artist s high aesthetic standards. Neil sees his Rounds works as finished but not ornamental, and hopes that when encountered collectively, the viewer s conceptions of physical labour and craft will be challenged. His zealous sincerity regarding his craft can be conceived of as a maker s perspective, an aesthetic-technical practice that constructs meaning through a marriage of reference points drawn from material and non-material culture. Take, for instance, the second outcome of his Round Three work, which riffs on iconic furniture design, musical instruments and social conventions in response to the letter he received from George Egerton-Warburton. A key aim of the work was to create an environment that would counteract the feeling of being in a situation with someone and not getting over the initial instance of meeting them. After a minor misstep in the direction of metronomes and chalk residue, he created People Person Park Bench. The wood is reluctantly left untreated as a concession to one of his aims in the Rounds project to work outside his comfort zone and create objects he wouldn t normally make. The work s iconic form an American picnic bench was arrived at when he considered situations where people come together in a friendly context. To counteract the awkwardness of sitting with strangers, he playfully inlaid a xylophone. A part-time invigilator at PICA, he had been inspired by the recent Jeppe Hein show; until then, playing in an art gallery was not something he associated with the formal experience of ALDUM Previous spread: Unit (exterior) (detail), 2010 Pine, cotton, aluminium 75 x 75 x 12cm 101

12 NEIL ALDUM IN CONVERSATION WITH KATIE LENANTON FEBRUARY MAY 2010 NEIL Shall we talk a bit about your background? You finished your undergrad degree in art. Then you moved to Singapore and taught yourself a business course and worked as a process analyst. Now you re doing a degree in sustainability, labouring, invigilating and maintaining an art practice on the side. In a cheesy way, to me you re this Renaissance man who has these skill sets that you wouldn t traditionally associate with an artist of your age. It s not the most direct path either. It wasn t planned out. I didn t specifically have an idea to go and do all these different things. At different parts of my life I was almost trying to give myself a safety net. I came out of art school and it was hard to delve straight into being a full-time artist because I didn t know what that meant, or how to go about it. Things came together when I came back from Singapore and started working at a management consulting company. Then Gallery East offered me a solo show and the Melbourne Art Fair. All these new things were coming at me at once. I m not sure that it influenced my artwork. It was tricky to balance them all, definitely. So then how do you approach being an artist? You seem to value craft and skill and perfection, realising the idea with a high level of finish. When I make something, I try to balance the idea of the beauty of an object and the materials I integrate into it. In 2008, much of my work, in a basic way, stemmed from the fact that Western Australians are so used to seeing construction. They re used to the development associated with the boom. So, sheet metal and house frames are materials I can t get away from. They inform how my work is structurally built. I find that people always ask me why I finish things off and make them in a craft way. They re interested in that aspect of my practice. For me, there s not always justification for leaving a work unfinished. I think the outcome is often more important than the idea behind it, so [what I strive for] is the feeling of designing an object and seeing it in its totality. I also think the whole lineage of craft, going back in history, is all about the craftsman learning a skill and trying to perfect a skill, a very niche skill. I like giving that off in a work, something has been tried and refined. It s not necessarily pushed to its maximum, but it s dealt with intricately. You mentioned you found the Rounds process quite confronting, you had to put aside your usual refined logical working methodologies and start from a context that someone else has created, in most cases. Yeah, particularly because apart from Round One, you can t approach the project purely with your own ideas. The nature of the project is bouncing off other artists work and that was really, really difficult. We didn t do that at art school. In terms of receiving a work from an artist, it s a bit different from what it sounds like because in many cases, the final works are yet to be made. Bennett gave you three words rather than a finished outcome, and you responded by making that insane table. That was a way for me to do a curveball. In a weird way, I was running away from producing a personal response. But because I generated a system to make a personal response, I don t feel bad about how I went about it. A fear I had with responding to artists work is that I d get caught up in redoing their idea. The table was a way for me to generate an outcome, but it was more about not being intimidated. Bennett has been a practicing artist for a while and he s done quite big shows. So I really wanted an approach where I could choose a way to develop an idea, and follow it. In my other works, I go through a very logical process. I choose colours and I try to refine my techniques. I m not expecting people to understand the chart. It would be nice if viewers could see how the system created the work, but I think it will be difficult be cause it s a shamble of objects. But it s cool it s not some thing I would normally come up with, and it s definitely not something I would create for my own projects. So the motivation behind giving Elise and Jürgen the table was to give them the opportunity to do whatever they wanted? Yeah, and to make it hard for them. I knew there wasn t one core idea behind the work, it was more about the system. I knew that was going to be a bullshit thing to give them and I know they found it quite tricky. But I enjoyed that, it s better to get more information than less. I think in a way, it s similar to what George gave you. A letter that walks you through his thought process and leaves you bamboozled. He ended it with a half-written rap song. The playfulness of it, the idea of participating with the viewer was completely out of my set of skills. It was haphazard there were links to other artists and at the end, a little poem. It didn t feel like I had much to go on. Well, you had the rap. I thought the rap was hilarious. ALDUM This page: Round Three Study for People Person Park Bench, 2010 Opposite page: Cement bag, x 50 x 14cm Cement bag 105

13 MY WONDER, MYSELF: SENSATION AND CAPITALISM IN REBECCA BAUMANN BY MATTHEW GILES I RECENTLY HEARD A STORY THAT REMINDS ME OF REBECCA BAUMANN S WORK. It comes from a friend who grew up in Dresden in East Germany during the final stages of the Cold War. The wall came down when she was six, meaning that she doesn t remember much of her life under communism, but one thing she does remember is the first and only time she visited West Berlin. She encountered the extravagance of capitalism s excess and was bombarded by colour, objects and variety unknown to her on the other side, and she remembers being driven to tears by the experience. There are two ways to interpret this anecdote. The first way is the way that I prefer, which is a disavowal of the idea that capitalism and its products, especially its excesses, are always-already emotionally and meaningfully bankrupt. In the anecdote, capitalist excesses have the ability to be genuinely moving because of the effect of their visual properties on the body and psyche. They put my friend, Anja, in touch with her human senses by overwhelming them, and they produce a real, spontaneous human response. Capitalism reinvigorates the human, and thereby is itself reinvigorated as a vector of humanity, rather than, or perhaps in addition to, being an engine of empty signifiers ensuring humanity s corruption. The second way to interpret the anecdote is the more traditional Marxist way, in that it shows hegemony at work, producing desire and making the capitalist subject complicit in her own subjectification. This interpretation is vouchsafed by an extra piece of information I elided in its initial telling. The reason Anja cried was not (or at least, was not only) because she was overwhelmed by capitalism s spectacle of colour. Rather, it was because her mother wouldn t buy any of the products that she could see. In this interpretation, her tears are not the tears of someone moved by the wonders of the visual; they are the tears of a child who is not able to fulfil a desire created by capitalist visual production. This interpretation affirms an approach to thinking about capitalism that I wish to disavow. Capitalism is presented as value-less manipulator encroaching on its subjects with disastrous effects daughter is alienated from mother, desire is taken over and artificially enlarged by the market, and emotional well-being is forestalled for the sake of material accumulation. Rebecca s work faces the same dilemma as Anja s anecdote. Her materials are the most superficial of capitalist excesses party decorations, as well as machines of comfort, convenience, and industry and she uses them in order to enact discussions of happiness, spectacle, time and autonomy. This practice was hinted at during her study at Curtin University of Technology, where she invented an eponymous persona that branded a series of fictitious self-help books satirising the commercialisation of the pursuit of happiness. This idea had the unintentional effect of deriding users of self-help texts, and was eventually abandoned. Rebecca revisited happiness in 2007 s New Disorder at The Old Berlin, which featured her work Confetti International. This installation aimed to create a perpetual confetti machine by inviting audiences to dump piles of confetti onto a conveyor belt, which would then transport the piles onto the face of the fan, which would blow the confetti into the air. Rather than exploring happiness by making static artefacts satirising its pursuit, Confetti International sought to actively immerse its viewer in a state of happiness. It was con ceived out of a whim when Rebecca bought a bag of confetti at a newsagent, started throwing it around herself in her bedroom and thought, Wouldn t you be happy if you had confetti falling around you all the time? The success of that installation inaugurated a body of work that mines similar techniques and themes, and continues in Rebecca s work for Rounds. In Rounds, she has created spectacles of fans, streamers, tinsel, piñatas and walkways, all toying in some way with our culture s interest in perpetual happiness. But where creating ironic self-help books at university forwarded a fixed, unambiguous derision of industrialised, commercialised notions of happiness, Rebecca s subsequent work is more ambiguous. It shifts from the objective distance of the contemplative gaze to an all-around immersion, and replaces irony with spectacle. This is a deliberate move, she says, because she does not wish to deride any person s particular technique of coping with a lack of happiness, and her only other explicit aim in the work that launched her subsequent oeuvre was to produce a feeling of happiness in the viewer. The question is, to what end? Is there an artistic expression or discussion going on in her work, or is it pure affect? In fact, affect itself provides a key to undoing this ambiguity. Deleuze and Guattari write about affect in What is Philosophy?, where they describe affects as, along with percepts, making up the bloc of sensations 1 that is the transcendental characteristic of art. Their concept of sensation is difficult to pin down because it seems to contradict scientific and cultural studies understandings of how humans experience the world, but I will attempt to summarise it as clearly and unobnoxiously as I can. Instead of the Lacanian approach to meaning, which suggests that virtually nothing of the world or the subject can be understood without being mediated by language, Deleuze and Guattari argue that art targets the body before the self, and so is beyond language, is something approaching the experience of non-linguistic animals 2, what Lacan might call the real. Art accomplishes this by disembodying percepts and affects, the sensory information we receive from art and the feelings that it provokes 3, from perceptions and affections. Art gives them their own ontological status by locating them within, for example, the lines and colours of a painting, Van Gogh s yellow, or Virginia Woolf s dense packing of experience into time. Sensation is an ephemeral force that is not produced by the materials of composition of a work of 1. G Deleuze and F Guattari, What is Philosophy?, New York, Columbia UP, 1994, p Ibid. p C Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze, London, Routledge, 2002, p BAUMANN Previous spread: Round Three Untitled Cascade, 2010 (detail) Tinsel curtain, fan, selecon 1.2k zoomspot Dimensions variable Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis 137

14 REBECCA BAUMANN IN CONVERSATION WITH MATTHEW GILES MARCH JUNE 2010 REBECCA So, you were saying you have a problem with being interviewed. What s your problem with it? I wouldn t say I have a problem with being interviewed, it s more I am concerned about the manner in which I represent my work and myself. In this context, the conversation becomes unnatural, and you need to make sure you think on your feet. Do you think interviewers ask artists to provide a context or explanation for their work that doesn t exist in a fixed way? Yes, I think that s probably true. The meaning of a work is to an extent fluid. When you re making work there are a lot of things flowing in your head, things which are feeding into the process; experiences you ve had, things you ve seen, ideas you re interested in. Then on any given day it might seem different. So I guess I m concerned about saying, my work is x-y-z, and then it s not that interesting any more. Even though there s the artist s intent, I think the focus should be what the audience gets out of it, and what they think it s about. I don t want to take that away from people. Often the more time that passes after you ve finished a work, the more you understand it. So, I think you ve got to be careful about providing a definitive explanation at any given time. So are there instances where it s worthwhile to call an artist to account for their work, or is it just something that gives audiences access to an artist s psyche, because that s what audiences like? Yes, I do think that it s necessary for an artist to be called to account for their work. I think that you always need to be able to explain yourself to some degree. It may offer the audience a greater understanding of the work and allow them to engage with it more. But I don t think the work should be judged on this explanation. As an artist you create something that exists visually, but you are also required to be able to talk about it. Sometimes the work will get judged on how you are able to express yourself in a written or verbal way, rather than on the work itself. You mentioned before the interview that you were in a weird spot with your practice. Well, I don t think I m in a weird spot with my practice, I m in a transitional place with my practice. To a degree, I think you always are. When you make something new, you re always starting again. It s why art-making can be a painful experience, because you re always pushing through something, always questioning about the validity of what you re creating. What has your experience of the Rounds project been up to now? It s been a longer and more involved process than most exhibitions I have participated in. Usually, if you know about a show this far out, you try some things and they change over time, and at the end you have a work which is very different to what you thought it would be at the beginning. Which is why Rounds is different. You don t get the chance to evolve your work, but in the process the work evolves itself. Can you talk about the moment that instigated your current interest in happiness and spectacle? I was buying stationery at a newsagent, I saw a packet of confetti, and bought it. I don t really know why. When I got home I started throwing it around my room and I had this idea, wouldn t everyone be happy if they had confetti perpetually falling around them all day every day, wherever you were, at home, at work, whatever? And the work that resulted from that question, Confetti International, that was a successful work for you? Yes, it was. The original idea was to create a confetti machine, which would be a perpetual cycle of confetti. In the end though, it wasn t like that, it was audience activated. I didn t know if people would want to interact with it, if they would know what to do. People often don t like to be the first to do something, so I was concerned that it would be nothing. I thought, is this anything? [Laughs] But the audience was really responsive to the work. Because of the continued activation of the work by the audience, it was perpetual in its own way. They d fill up the bucket then put the confetti on the conveyor belt, which would take it to the mouth of the fan, and would create this big explosion of confetti. The confetti would flutter down, and people would dance in it, laugh, and then work together to get it going again. I was surprised by it; I thought people would hold themselves back more. I guess in that way it was successful. Since then you ve often worked with party materials to create spectacles of happiness, but how do these themes and techniques fit into Motion Study I, which was an automatic ball thrower perpetually bouncing a ball off a wall and into itself? BAUMANN This page: Improvised Smoke Device, Coloured smoke cartridges, detonator 5 minute performance Exhibited as part of Consuelo Cavaniglia s ongoing project Artists in Response to City Spaces, Jun 2010 Opposite page: Motion Study II, 2009 Wire bound books, industrial fans Dimensions variable Exhibited at Fremantle Arts Centre for solo exhibition from the beginning: one more time, Apr 2009 Photos: Bewley Shaylor 141