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Stories from inside life's big top.

Gang of Film Berlin

Posted on March 16, 2017

Ninety-nine films, four per day, one month on your butt and no end in sight…

 

Film festivals are fun. Invigorating. Inspiring. But it has to be said, they are also hazardous to your health – especially if you’re a film critic covering one of the biggest in the world.

 

Marathon swathes of time are spent away from sunlight. You spend so much time sitting in the dark you worry about turning into a vampire and getting deep vein thrombosis. Kind of insane when you think about it…

 

I was comprehensively reminded at the recent 2017 Berlinale, the above being the ‘statistical’ outcome from my own ’embedded’ experience there. I covered the festival for three Australian media outlets: ABC Local Radio (Overnights with Rod Quinn: 3 x sprawling chats and tons of fun); ABC Radio National (film program ‘The Final Cut‘ with Jason Di Rosso. Great to ‘talk festivals’ with possibly the last remaining cinephile on Australian radio); and Guardian Australia (a feature about compassionate, Australian-made game changer, Casting JonBenét.)

 

True, I got to see a gigantic, excellent swag of films (Competition selection aside, the Berlinale programmers excelled themselves in Panorama, Generation, Forum, Retrospective and Shorts). And, after a “hiatus”, to re-inhabit one of the great passions of my life: cinema.

 

But that wasn’t the best bit. I also got to meet some lovely folk. Lovely film critic folk.

 

They became my community.

It’s been a while ‘between drinks’ for me at Berlinale: twelve years to be precise. (Eleven really – last year I dipped a toe back in, covering genre-blending Aboriginal TV series ‘Cleverman’ for Guardian Australia. Directed by Wayne Blair, it world premiered in ‘Berlinale Special Series’.)

 

The first time I hit the ground running at Potsdamer Platz – sampling my first curry wurst in sub-zero icy climes – was in 2005.

 

I was a critic and presenter for Australian TV program, ‘The Movie Show’. I got lucky: it was the year The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was in Competition – a dream come true to interview not only Wes Anderson but Angelica Huston *swoon*. (She had a cold and I told her about echinacea).

 

Ken Loach was there with film ‘compendium’ Tickets. (We chatted atop the not-long-completed, highly contentious Renzo Piano glass triangle, “Potsdamer Platz 11“.) I interviewed George Michael (vale) at the Adlon Hotel about documentary George Michael: A Different Story. (He was super lovely. We talked about the “difficulties of being Cancerian”.) Plus it was the season of mighty films Paradise Now, Thumbsucker, Sophie Scholl and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, blitzing at the festival awards all.

 

Two talented Aboriginal Australian filmmakers were also recognised: Warwick Thornton’s Green Bush took home the Panorama Best Short Film prize, and Wayne Blair’s The Djarn Djarns won the Kplus Crystal Bear for the Best Short Film.

 

Both starting out in their careers, we met for the first time in Berlin.  I remember standing in the middle of the (then) AFC Festival party, the three of us a bit dazed and confused from jet lag and the crazy energy of the night. Desert-hued snowflakes sprinkled down outside the window, tinged by the Festspiele‘s orange lights shining on from the platz below. It was a bit special.

 

It was a bit special again when I interviewed Wayne at Berlinale 2016, now years on with a smash hit under his belt (The Sapphires), not to mention an LA agent. Grinning back at me, he thought so too.

 

To paraphrase an old Deutsch theologian, nothing like “the magic of beginnings”…

 

* * *

Too many hours in the dark.. L-R: Yun-hua Chen, David Mouriquand & Teresa Vena.

2017 rolls around. I’m living in Berlin. I’m still a freelancer. And when it comes to festivals, Berlinale’s one of the “big three”. I’d be silly not to cover it again, right? In my adopted home town? This is where I live. Doubts arise.

 

Can I still do this? Cover a festival? This isn’t what I do now – well not  often, anyway. Do I still love film enough to watch four movies – FOUR! – a day, and surrender my life to it for an entire month?

 

Moreover, does film still love me?

 

The answer – like most things as I’m learning – lay in ‘finding community’. Enter three sweet souls: firstly David Mouriquand, “half-French, half-English” he tells me within moments of meeting, which we do by chance on Day Two of the pre-festival press screenings, waiting in the cold outside of the big-arse multiplex where films are being previewed.

 

Asking “whether the doors are open yet”, I apologise for assuming he speaks English and not German. He tells me he doesn’t speak German “just French and English”. Oh yeah, “and Spanish”. Whereupon I blush with the shame of my Antipodean mono-lingual upbringing.

 

He writes for English-language Berlin pop-culture mag EXBERLINER, and is steeling himself to blog daily once the Festival begins (read tight turnarounds between snatched snacks and three daily Competition screenings.) Within seconds he offers up his love for Tom Waits and helpful advice on how to navigate this freaking behemoth of a Festival. I sigh audibly in relief and watch the breath from my lungs freeze mid-air.

Out on the streets: Ava Gardner & Gregory Peck, ‘On The Beach’ (1959).

Day Three and David introduces me to Yun-hua Chen. From Taiwan and Berlin-based, she speaks Chinese, German, French and English (possibly even some Greek), writes reviews in all four, and works for the Goethe Institute’s international critic program. She’s a hardcore cinephile. I quiver in admiration.

Day Four, and anticipating a massive dose of home-sickness, I see On The Beach (1959), a movie set in and around the beaches of Melbourne, my home town. The titular “beach” –  Canadian Bay on the Mornington Peninsula – and the suburbs in which many of its dramatic scenes play out, feel so close. This beach was one of the the places my parents swam, socialised and formed the narrative of their early life together, in their 20s.

It’s at Arsenal, the cinema for cinephiles. Covered in classic posters (Herzog’s 70s masterpiece Stroszek among them, original creasefolds still visible), I bump into Yun-hua. She  introduces me to Teresa Vena. Teresa’s Swiss, speaks German, English and French (and most-probably Italian.) She writes in all three, and for online magazine Berliner Filmfestivals. I wind up seeing snippets of her reviews on my daily U-Bahn ride to and from the Festival. Playing to the sleep-deprived commuters, they cyclically flash onto the TV screens inside the crowded train carriages.

 

Teresa spots me after On The Beach: I’m a teary mess. Not just because I’ve just seen my home town (and the beaches where I grew up) rendered empty and soulless by an eerily-imagined atomic apocalypse, but grief has reared its familiar head. The fifth anniversary of my Mum’s passing was only days before. The sadness is still near. The film returns to me a memory of hers: the time she got to shake the hand of Gregory Peck when he was shooting the film in situ. It was the year before she and Dad married and she was working at the city’s iconic department store, Myer. The actor was paraded through the grand building as a token of goodwill towards the city of Melbourne for being so “hospitable” to the production (and it was.) So the story goes, the “ladies of the office”, of whom she was one, lined up to meet the 40-something Hollywood star.

 

Mum also proudly told me that one of her girlfriends was an extra at Canadian Bay, for the key scene where Ava Gardner and Peck get their romance on. It prompted one of the film’s best lines, uttered by Fred Astaire, who, watching the lovers cavort in the water with binoculars from the shore, declares “It’s like looking at a French movie!”

 

No matter: I think Teresa was impressed that I could feel so much in a movie. In a world that shuns vulnerability, perhaps that’s the currency cinephiles share, and value: an appreciation for the possibility of being moved to tears in the communal privacy of a darkened cinema.

 

Deeply inspired by film and energised at the prospect of Berlinale starting – I’d found my people. A Whats App group formed. So did this “gang of film”. With three weeks of previews over, we saddled up and rode into the sunset of the Festival proper: ten days including Competition.

Still from ‘Skins’ by Eduardo Casanova.

A month after meeting, the four of us emerge from the dark. We’ve spent countless hours together, watching countless films – also working, sharing stories, information and snacks, celeb spotting and ‘communing’ at screenings, a few parties, nightly knock-off drinks, and press conferences.

 

This caravan of critics attracts others. The community ebbs and flows as does the icy weather and occasional sunshine. We laugh stacks, argue kindly and listen deeply.

 

I’m astonished such a disparate group of people can share so much, so quickly. I’m not used to groups being so functional. Especially not in ‘the workplace’. At odds with today’s competitive click-bait eco-system, these were folk who took themselves lightly but the responsibility of reviewing films seriously. A dying breed.

 

Between the four of us we see close to five hundred films. Expats all, the  diversity of opinions is as fascinating as it is instructive. Listening to Yun-hua’s perspective on the Taiwanese and Chinese films was illuminating, especially around the nuances involved in the narratives (The Foolish Bird, Mr. Long, Almost Heaven, A Taste of Betel Nut.) Teresa takes no prisoners when it comes to attacking the cliched tropes of French cinema (see Strange Birds, Final Portrait), and recalling the ‘best of British’, David’s merciless take down of conceits, Return To Montauk and The Dinner, was nothing short of hilarious.

 

The culture of consensus – and nepotism – that so often riddles Australian criticism is mercifully absent. Taste-pusher Skins divides us. So does Golden Bear Winner On Body And Soul, and out-of-competition studio entry Logan, its central ten year-old ‘killing machine’ character racking up double-figures in grisly, bloody kills.

 

It’s the first time I really feel ‘close’ to European cinema, in all of its complicated, ancient, fraught, sprawling, borderless glory, now somehow less distant, less ‘other’. I kind of get it now. I have Berlin, Berlinale and the Gang Of Film to thank.

 

* * *

The last film I see at Berlinale is a lavish, big-budget popcorn flick, as happily high-camp as it is high-action. On the advice of David (thank you) I watch The Fifth Element (1997) on a massive screen with a massive sound system. It was so pleasurable: a great way to finish what had been, frankly, a marathon that had deprived me of the natural world, and the company of loved ones who I’m sure believed I’d joined witness protection.

 

Jammed into a packed cinema with five hundred ‘civilians’, intoxicated by its excesses, aesthetics and craziness, together we giggled, marveled and swooned as one giant hive-mind, happily under the influence of 1990s Luc Besson. He was so on fire with that film.

 

I was moved to tears again, this time feeling a palpable sense of community, as we sat there, strangers, connected by such an intense experience and not wanting the credits to end.

 

Either that, or Chris Tucker made me cry from laughing so much. He’s sooo funny (and “Lovesexy” in TFE). All hail.

‘Chris Tucker does Prince’. Still from ‘The Fifth Element’.

So. I ask the Gang Of Film if they’d like to commemorate our Berlinale ‘moment’ by making a podcast. So that we can ruminate over the great art we got to appreciate, consider, and write about – Top Tens. Bests. Worsts. Parties. Awards. And argue – especially over whether a) Aki Kaurismaki was in fact drunk when he won the Silver Bear for Best Director, b) His film The Other Side Of Hope was sorely ripped off by not winning the Golden Bear for Best Film, and c) The national drink of Finland is in fact Lakka or Mesimarja.

 

They say yes.

 

A quote to end this rant, by the aforementioned Herra Kaurismaki, one of Europe’s greatest filmmakers, chain smokers, lovers of Lakka and and riotous destroyers of vapid award ceremonies:

 

“When I was young, I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me. But I’m not young any more, so now I just sit in the bath.”

 

* * *

  • Read: David Mouriquand‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Yun-hua Chen‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Teresa Vena‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Megan Spencer‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Listen: to the Gang Of Film podcast
  • View: my Berlinale ‘Awards’ gallery
  • Big thanks to the others who saddled up: Paul, Mohamed, Sarah, Stephanie, Wellington, Susanne and Nathaneal.
  • And to the helpful team at Berlinale.
Still from 'Honeygiver Among The Dogs' by Dechen Roder

Top Ten Films From Berlinale: Megan Spencer

Posted on March 15, 2017

Megan Spencer, Guardian Australia, Radio National

 

 

1. Honeygiver Among The Dogs (Dechen Roder, BHUTAN)

 

Called the first ever “Buddhist film noir”, this is a breathtaking film set in the mountains of Bhutan. A policeman is sent to investigate the disappearance of a Buddhist nun, presumed murdered. Tailing the suspect – an impossibly beautiful woman deemed a “demon-ness” by the village bigots – the film becomes an ethereal treatise about the nature of reality – and  our relationship to what we ‘think’ we know. The natural and ‘sacred’ worlds crisscross at every opportunity. A profound, unpredictable, and thrilling cinematic achievement. (Panorama)

 

2. Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (Mathieu Denis Simon Lavoie, CANADA)

 

An uncompromising, confronting and beautifully cinematic imagining on how a Baader-Meinhof-esque terrorist cell might develop out of Neo-Liberal, capitalist society. Straight-to-camera set pieces, political quotes and extended instrumental ‘interludes’ arrogantly punctuate this searing, 3-hour French-Canadian production. (Generation 14+)

 

3. Casting JonBenét (Kitty Green, AUSTRALIA)

 

A compassionate, innovative ‘documentary hybrid’ about a 20-year-old, unsolved child murder which gripped the world. Funny, moving and a decidedly kind take on the very human instinct to distract ourselves from our own pain and trauma, by focusing on the tragedies that befall others. Disrupting the documentary form by combining interviews with “camera confessional” and re-enactment, Panorama programmer Wieland Speck tells me, “By offering many different approaches to ‘the truth’, the complex.. non-calculable ways our remembrance works become transparent… We bear witness to something like the creation of a ‘swarm’ truth – which is not leading to new horizons, but sharpens and enriches our ability to be critical. More important than ever in times of – you name it – fake truths and alternative facts.” What he said. (Panorama)

 

4.On Body And Soul (Ildikó Enyedi, HUNGARY)

 

A deserving winner of the Golden Bear, with some of the most beautiful images ever put to screen. An ethereal, strangely moving and sweetly funny romantic ‘dramedy’ about a pair of office workers who can only find connection and intimacy through sharing dreams. Set against the backdrop of a slaughterhouse, it speaks volumes about work, the divide between ‘that which is man-made’ and ‘the natural world’, and what might become of us if we remove ourselves from caring about either. (Competition)

 

5. Requiem For Mrs J. (Bojan Vuletić, SERBIA)

 

A knockout of a film about a woman struggling to continue after the death of her husband. Everyone around her is hateful, nothing holds meaning any more and she is rendered numb, furthered also by an Orwellian, post-war bureaucracy with little time for empathy. At times drolly funny, it’s an unpredictable, redemptive and powerful portrait of contemporary life in a possible post-EU Europe. (Panorama Special)

 

6. The Other Side Of Hope (Aki Kaurismaki, FINLAND)

 

Director Aki Kaurismaki burst into song at the post-Competition-screening press conference for his film. He had a lot to sing about: this is a touching, deadpan funny and deadly serious look at the plight of of asylum seekers in ‘post-refugee crisis’ Europe. The second in Kaurismaki’s planned “refugee trilogy”, I loved it from start to finish. And the music. Silver Bear winner for ‘Best Director’. (Competition)

 

7. Wilde Maus (Josef Hader, AUSTRIA)

 

A beautifully-written, satirical comedy about the chattering classes, “polite society” and a mid-life crisis, talented Austrian cabaret artist and actor Josef Hader reportedly “gave” himself this film to direct as a 50th birthday present. He’s a brilliant clown. Not what you think, it’s one of the funniest films in the festival. Wilde Maus should have won a major award, plain and simple. (Competition)

 

8. Loving Pia (Daniel Borgman, DENMARK)

 

Casting mostly ‘non-actors’, and shot on 16mm, Borgman tells the story of Pia, an aging, intellectually disabled woman, yearning for romance and living in rural Denmark. Based on the central actress’s own life story, the film blossoms into an incredibly moving, sweet romantic comedy, with a pet goose stealing the show at every opportunity. A brave and compassionate portrait, courtesy of a unique collaboration between the actors and director. (Forum)

 

9. Untitled (Michael Glawogger, Monica Willi, AUSTRIA)

 

A big fan of Workingman’s Death, I was saddened to hear of iconoclast documentary maker Michael Glawogger’s own in 2014. Longtime editor Monica Willi took it upon herself to finish his final project, left unedited at the time of his demise, brought about by an infection while travelling.

Glawogger’s gaze upon the world is unique. Here he sets out to make a film with no premise other than to aimlessly, “intuitively”, wander the world in search of beauty and meaning. Willi helps him posthumously achieve his vision, fashioning a stark and poetic observation of a world simultaneously falling apart and resurrecting, courtesy of ‘man’ and nature. (Panorama)

 

10. Ghost Hunting (Raed Andoni, PALESTINE)

 

A controversial, courageous and at times tough to watch film, that, like Casting JonBenét, combines re-enactment and “role play” with documentary footage. Palestinian former inmates of an Israeli detention centre are invited to collaborate on a film about their incarceration. The director invites them to build a replica of the prison and ‘interrogates’ them about their experiences.

At times appearing cruel and at others cathartic, the film is poetic statement about human rights and the need to live in peace and with dignity. Winner of the Glasshutte Original Documentary Award. (Panorama Documentary)

 

Honorable mentions: Poi E: The Story of Our Song, I Am Not Your Negro, Dream Boat, Somnilioquies, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, Emo The Musical, Have A Nice Day, The Wound, Insyriated, A Fantastic Woman, Beuys, Bones Of Contention, Joaquim, Wolfe (short).

 

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Still from 'Honeygiver Among The Dogs' by Dechen Roder.

Top Ten Films From Berlinale: Teresa Vena

Posted on March 15, 2017

Guest Post: Teresa Vena,  Berliner Filmfestivals.

 

 

  1. Honeygiver Among The Dogs by Dechen Roder

This is the first film completely shot in Bhutan, with all actors native from Bhutan. Female director Dechen Roder is able to show an intriguing story in beautiful pictures, with perfect rhythm. The plot is very intelligent evoking a constant menacing atmosphere, suggesting a crime that finally never happened.

 

  1. Centaur by Aktan Aryum Kubat

The second film by this director from Kyrgyzstan tells in an authentic way about the loss of connection between ‘man’ and ‘nature’. The main character is played by the director himself; he has a great charisma.

 

  1. Tiere (Animals) by Greg Zglinski

An intriguing roller coaster ride around the topics love, trust and jealousy. Reality and fiction are mixed up and the spectator needs to stay focused. At the end however, there is no explicit interpretation: it’s up to the spectator to find their own.

 

  1. ORG (1979) by Fernando Birri

A 177 minute film with more than 26,000 cuts! A kaleidoscope of pictures, text and sound loosely linked to the short story by Thomas Mann “Die vertauschten Köpfe”.

The project of this still-living, now 91-year-old Argentinian director was created between 1967 and 1978, and supported by Mario Girotti, better known as “Terence Hill”, who also plays one of the main characters.

An highly suggestive experiment, it’s a film with the ambition to invent a new film language and aesthetic. Birri himself said that it’s a “nightmare movie”, but definitely an unforgettable and enriching experience.

 

  1. El Bar (The Bar) by Alex de la Iglesia

Spain’s enfant terrible shot a horror comedy with great protagonists and a good sense of timing. While the last third gets a bit repetitive, the first part of the film is hilarious. Perfectly designed opening and closing titles.

 

 

 

 

  1. Obaltan by Yu Hyun-mok

A Korean film from 1961 in black and white reminiscent of Italian Neorealism. The film depicts a North Korean family left in the South after the war, struggling with unemployment and poverty. Emotions are shown coldly and laconically except in the the closing scene, where the main character, suffering from a tenacious toothache, drives a cab around the city losing his orientation. It’s a scene that reminds of Fellini’s closing scene from Roma.

 

  1. The Party by Sally Potter

A black comedy with perfect timing and great sense of humor. A tremendous cast.

 

  1. Untitled by Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi

The footage of this documentary was been shot by Austrian director Michael Glawogger on a trip around the world – a film he was unable to finish, as he died from malaria in 2014. [The job went to his longtime editor, Monica Willi]. Untitled shows his sensitivity and great curiosity about what surrounds him. His view is not one of a superior foreigner, but of a compassionate observer.

 

  1. Avanti Popolo by Rafi Bukaee

An Israeli film from 1986 about the Gaza war between Arabs and Israelis. The first film from Israel in which Arabs actually were personified by real Arab actors. It tells the story of a friendship between supposed enemies who share the same dreams, hopes and fears about misunderstandings and the absurdity of war.

 

  1. Last Witness by Lee Doo-yong

This film was restored by the Korean Film Archive and shown at the Berlinale Forum section at the full length of 155 minutes. Released in 1980, it is considered to be a precursor to all Korean gangster movies, which represent one of the biggest aspects of Korean film production.

The censors back then cut nearly an hour of the film, considering it too violent, and because the story sympathizes “too much” with North Koreans.

Despite its length, the film is really captivating, proposing an unusual morally upright and highly empathic policeman. There are strong pictures of rural Korea that evoke, through constant rain and muddy landscapes, a particular atmosphere.

 

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Still from 'Qiu/Inmates' by Ma Li

Top Ten Films From Berlinale: Yun-hua Chen

Posted on March 15, 2017

Guest Post: Yun-hua Chen, Goethe Institute, Mosaic Space And Mosaic Auteurs.

 

  1. Qiu / Inmates

Audacious, sensitive, contemplative, non-judgmental, gentle and very humane, it has definitely brought new perspectives and thoughts which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

  1. Small Talk

The most brutally candid conversation with oneself and love letter to one’s mother that I have ever seen. I truly admire the filmmaker’s remarkable courage, tenderness and strength. Tissues needed!

 

  1. Close-Knit

It’s such a sweet and heart-warming film, and beautifully acted by the trio. Tissues needed – again!

 

  1. Insyriated

An incredibly powerful chamber piece that shows as much the outside world in turmoil as the internal state of the distressed family, stranded somewhere in Syria. It left me breathless.

 

  1. The Bomb

Mind-blowing. Beauty in cruelty to the extreme. A must-watch for every human being on earth.

 

  1. Ghost in the Mountains

I love its cleverly orchestrated labyrinthine and trance-like narrative, intentionally eye-deceiving camerawork, and meditative mise-en-scène.

 

  1. Animals

A very powerful film. A lot of the scenes still haunt me now.

 

  1. Almost Heaven

A seemingly simple and straightforward film on the surface, it delves deep into issues of life and death, the transition in-between, and what living actually means.

 

  1. Somnilioques

A sublime journey across the boundaries of dim light and darkness, consciousness and subconsciousness, sound and silence

 

  1. Newton

In a humorous way the film exposes the absurdity ingrained in the democratic system, and asks some important, thought-provoking questions which cannot be easily answered.

 

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Still from Raoul Peck's 'I Am Not Your Negro'.

Top Ten Films From Berlinale: David Mouriquand

Posted on March 15, 2017

Guest Post: David Mouriquand, EXBERLINER, Before The Bombs Fall.

 

1) I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO

 

An unmissable offering in this year’s Panorama selection was Raoul Peck’s timely, Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The filmmaker takes the words of the late novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who wanted the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers “to bang up against each other”, and stylishly laces his prose with archival footage and modern clips.

The result is a concise, articulate and non-hectoring chronicle of black activism during the civil rights movement, which contains eerily prophetic aspects, and comes to life through the director’s status as a cinephile.

Peck uses a great number of film clips in order to create a fascinating correlation between the history of cinema and America’s race and class struggle. Hollywood here is essentially the eagle wounded by an arrow. It’s a riveting watch.

 

2) THE BOMB

 

Conceived as “an art installation with live music” for a soundtrack by the band The Acid, The Bomb transfers surprisingly well to the big screen. Screening in the Berlinale Special selection, it clocks in at 1 hour and features footage of the atomic bomb, from its inception to its use. Disturbing, insightful and immensely powerful, directors Kevin Ford, Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser show how truly terrifying it is that mankind is capable of the being the architects of our own worst fears and possibly, demise.

 

3) UNTITLED

 

This posthumous documentary by Michael Glawogger, edited by his longstanding collaborator Monika Willi, is a mesmeric cinematic experience. Composed of the Austrian director’s last footage, filmed in the Balkans, Italy, North and West Africa, it offers a contemplative journey that is as transportive as it is eye-opening.

 

4) ON BODY AND SOUL

 

Ildikó Enyedi’s return to the silver screen after an 18-year sabbatical proved to be successful: the writer/director scooped up the Golden Bear. Her film focuses on the nascent relationship between two lonely souls who work in an abattoir. Inhabiting a harsh world unconducive to tenderness, they forge an empathic connection in somnolence.

The affecting performances and the melancholic tone make it a weirdly inspired choice for this year’s top prize. It also clashes with last year’s rather obvious winner Fire At Sea, which was Berlinale-tailored. Not that aspects of On Body And Soul aren’t timely: maybe we need an unusual love story to see us through the strange times in which we currently live…

 

5) THE PARTY

 

Chameleonic British director Sally Potter’s eighth feature was the comedic highlight of this year’s Competition. It was also the streamlined and effective antidote to Oren Moverman’s bloated The Dinner, also selected in Competition.

This monochromatic chamber piece, dubbed by the director as “a light and loving look at a broken England”, is a lean, mean and wickedly mordant black comedy which frequently echoes the work of Yasmina Reza and John Boynton Priestly. The zingers land, the mystery works and the eye-watering cast have a blast, making this dysfunctional game of Cluedo a one-act play that happily stakes its claim in the pantheon of parties-gone-wrong films.

 

6) CASTING JONBENET

 

Kitty Green’s documentary about the unsolved murder of the titular 6-year old beauty queen is an excellent genre-bending hybrid, the thought-provoking antics of which echo Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, screening at last year’s Berlinale. It is a compelling and darkly humorous look at our culture’s obsession with the sensational, as well as a study on our tendency towards schadenfreude, and the morbid fascination we all have when it comes to tragedy.

 

7) THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

Aki Kaurismaki’s droll take on the immigration crisis is the surreal ‘yin’ to last year’s Golden Bear-winning ‘yang’, Fire At Sea. Beautifully acted and cinematically lush, this unpredictable film has heart to spare, deftly meshing deadpan humour with sincerity. Arguably this year’s Competition selection’s strongest offering.

 

8) EL PACTO DE ADRIANA (ADRIANA’S PACT)

 

This incredibly impactful and truly engrossing documentary is the Panorama selection’s gem. Lissette Orozco’s feature film debut tells the story of a revelation which causes a deep fracture within a family: the director’s favourite aunt, Adriana, is suddenly detained while visiting her family in Chile. She is accused of having worked for the DINA, Pinochet’s notorious secret police and faces horrifying charges of torture, which she denies.

Armed with a camera, her young niece takes it upon herself to uncover the truth about Adriana: a truth that could exonerate or incriminate her beloved aunt. Imagine if Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell had taken a more troubling turn, and you gauge the tone of this haunting documentary, the intrigue of which rivals the most immersive of conspiratorial spy dramas.

 

9) INSYRIATED

 

Belgian director Philippe Van Leew helms an incredibly tense chamber piece set in Damascus. As the world crumbles around a small group of people holed up in an apartment, one matriarch desperately tries to salvage her family and neighbours’ humanity.

It is one of the Panorama selection’s most thrilling offerings, boasting a superb and complex central performance from Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass, previously seen in Steven Spielberg’s Munich and recent Netflix hit, The OA.

 

10) SOMNILOQUIES

 

This experimental dreamscape from directors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor screened in the Forum selection, is ideal for those who like their films destabilizing and hypnotic. It focuses on the late American songwriter Dion McGregor who made the history books as the world’s most prolific sleep-talker. Over the years his roommate and fellow songwriter Mike Barr would record his friend’s nocturnal diatribes, all at conversational volume. They oscillate between the surreally funny, impressively coherent and the poetically disturbing.

The filmmakers curated and compiled selections of his dream-speech recordings, and play them over the blurred exploration of naked bodies belonging to sleepers. The result is a lysergic mood poem that often feels like being in a sensory deprivation tank.

 

Honourable Mentions: God’s Own Country, Close-Knit, Pokot, El Bar, Call Me By Your Name.

 

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Pulse Of The Rhyme: Cedric Till

Posted on January 6, 2017

One of the most impressive things about Cedric Till is the respect that he has for words.

 

About to turn 28, the Berlin-born rapper and spoken word artist stills rowdy rooms with the power of his poetic expression. You know something special’s about to happen when he gets up on a stage, quietly smouldering with the intensity of not only having something to say, but having thought through how to say it a thousand times over…

 

Up there, he lights a fire, digging deep into the machinations of his experience and fashioning carefully-chosen phrases into rhyme, rhythm and reason. No-one draws a breath until he finishes his gentle speak-singing narratives, usually flashing a wry, shy grin in conclusion.

 

In “a world that can’t stop talking” Cedric is a rare orator, one who makes you shut up and listen. Deep. Words, he tells me, are the tools he uses “to touch life”. “They’re the tools I use to chisel a message”. I’m not surprised to find out that his ‘day job’ is as a translator: language is his business.

 

The day we meet for the Circus Folk photo shoot, brilliant sunshine dares to overthrow the bleak tyranny of a Berlin winter’s day. Squinting in the the dazzling rays, Cedric recounts more about his life, his writing practice, recordings, rapping and creativity, as we crunch our way across the glistening, silver-frosted tarmac of Tempelhofer Airfield, which flanks the neighbourhood he’s called home for much of his life.

 

I learn of his fearless rhyme battles as a teen; his ‘tenuous’ relationship with German hip hop (“let’s just say I’ve been ‘an observer and student of it’ since 2004”, he laughs), and the gratitude he feels towards hip hop and basketball. “They saved my life in the early years”, he says.

 

On this gleaming winter’s day, Cedric shoots hoops, I shoot photos, and we both shoot the breeze. A pleasure.


At the Feld: Cedric Till. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: Cedric – you are one of the rare Berlin-born ‘Berliners’ on Circus Folk!  But you also have Polynesian heritage: where do you hail from and what is your family background?

 

Cedric Till: I was born and raised in Berlin, in a former hospital for women and children, here in Neukölln. Last of a dying breed, or so I’m told.

 

I’ve lived in Berlin most of my life, in two different districts. I was born in Neukölln (Berlin’s now rapidly in-demand “eighth borough”), but spent three years in a group home in Geltow, a local center between Potsdam and Werder in Brandenburg. At age eleven, me and my mother moved to Reinickendorf [a north-western neighbourhood of Berlin]. I would go to school there. When the rent became unaffordable, I moved back to Neukölln, in 2011.

 

Ethnically speaking, my mother’s German, also born in Berlin. My father, a guitarist, composer and songwriter, is a more complicated case. He was born in Lübeck [Northern Germany], but his father, whom he only knew from a photograph and one brief phone conversation, appears to have had Polynesian and African-American ancestry, going back to Hawaii.

 

When I learned about my heritage at age 15, I began looking for connections out of curiosity. Problem is, there aren’t too many Polynesians [here in Germany]. So far I have only met one person with Tongan heritage in my life.

 

I’ve spent most of my life seeking a culture that felt like mine. I was raised in a German family, but even as a child I never related to German culture, opting to look for answers elsewhere. I’m still searching, really. Should create my own culture, perhaps?

 

CF: What do you like about living in Berlin? Is it good for young artists? And what might be some of the challenges?

 

CT: For one, it’s my hometown. As a Berliner, hometown pride is part of what makes us who we are. I’d say it’s comparable to that of the people of New York or Philadelphia. We love our city – dirty, noisy, green, rough and rugged as it is.

 

Is it good for young artists? It’s THE place to be, if you ask me. Whatever you do, you’ll find an audience and a community here. Some people may come here for a short spell, milk the city for some exposure and move on. Others arrive and make their home here.

 

The challenges? Rents are raised like middle fingers to the locals: the gentrification process is very real. When I moved back to Neukölln after all those years it was like everything but the names of the streets had been changed.

 

Also, Berlin is now an artistic “Mecca” of sorts, which means there are thousands of artists living here. This makes getting noticed much harder, especially if you’re a local. People come here for the ‘cultural melting pot’, but not really to experience local Berlin art, due to the language barrier. This makes it appear like there are parallel societies at times.

 

This is why I feel affirmed in my choice to use English as my language, not German.

As above and so below: Cedric, on stage at Lagari. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: When did you first realize that you wanted to write and perform? Was there a ‘light bulb’ moment for you? Or was it more of an organic process?

 

CT: When I was five my cousin had given me a tape with songs from rapper Ice-T‘s albums ‘Power’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’. That was when I fell in love with Hip Hop.

 

Five years later I was living in the group home I spoke of. The time there was difficult: I fought with the other kids every day, as well as the adult supervisors. Many of them came from broken homes. Some had mental illnesses, some girls were raped by their fathers. We even had a few children who were indoctrinated by their neo-Nazi parents.

 

I was there due to my hyperactivity disorder and a resulting hair-trigger temper. I needed some kind of outlet for the constant emotional and physical battery; sports wasn’t enough.

 

So on March 25th, 1999, I wrote my first rhyme. It was only self-therapy in the beginning but I was ambitious and wanted to become good at it. In the fall of 2004, I performed my first recorded song at a youth center. That was when I realized that I had talent and wanted to be seen and heard.

 

CF: Who are some of your artistic heroes or inspirations?

 

CT: I’ve already mentioned Ice-T: he’s practically responsible for me ever picking up the pen to write rhymes. As far as music goes, the most important inspirations include Björk, Sade, Miles Davis, MF Doom, Eminem, Z-Ro, The Wu-Tang Clan, Sean Price, Scarface, Joe Budden and Ka.

 

My artistic heroes are my creative friends.

 

CF: What is your relationship like to writing? Is it something that comes naturally to you? Or is it something that you have worked at over the years?

 

CT: I think, back to my elementary school days, I’ve always loved to write essays and do researched presentations. I think writing comes naturally to me now because I’ve been doing it for close to eighteen years. I have written more verses, poems, and songs than I could possibly remember.

 

As per Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of mastery [“ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field”], I consider myself a “master” of my craft. But I am still yearning for more growth and working towards ever-greater heights of creative proficiency. I will stop working when my body says it’s time to go.

 

CF: And also to performing: what does it feel like when you’re on a stage?

 

CT: The stage, much like the recording studio, is my confessional. It’s my shrink. It’s my sanctuary for when I simply must vent all these stockpiled thoughts and bottled feelings. It is pure catharsis I feel when I leave the stage, knowing I’ve left it all out there.

 

That said, the introvert in me enjoys creating more than performing. I don’t enjoy reiteration much, even though it is practically the vast majority of an artist’s work.

Straight shooter: Cedric Till. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What kind of stories do you tell, on stage and/or in your music? How would you describe them?

 

CT: I never know if they are ‘stories’; [it’s for] other people [to] decide if they are.

 

I go through life, I think about ideas, people, events… I discuss them. I share everything that goes on in my mind. It is an inherent need of mine. A song, a story, or a poem: that is all but a mode of expression.

 

Some people respond to certain modes better than others. I just write what I feel I must express. Topically, only the inspiration I get from life and my imagination limit me. Just listen with an open mind and an open heart.

 

Hoop dreams. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Cedric Till. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: You also rap and make music quite prolifically, having released at least two recordings per year since 2010. Would you be so kind as to share a ‘snapshot’ of your journey through music so far, including origins and collaborators?

 

CT: I rap and I work with musicians and producers who provide me with the necessary musical canvas for my writing. Since my debut album ‘Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove’ in 2010, I have released seven EPs, the last one called ‘INFP’, being the first project released under my real name, Cedric Till. I dropped my former stage name “Concrete Cee” this year because I did not want to hide behind a made-up name anymore. My work is too personal and too attached to who I am for me not to use my real name.

 

I got into recording in 2004, when I took part in a youth project that sought to keep urban kids off the streets. A youth center happened to have a recording studio, and I recorded my first song there. I would later home-record at friends’ places, but in 2005, I had my first professional recording experience with my longtime friend Andy. Since then he and I have become an inseparable tandem.

 

I have worked with various artists, be they singers, musicians, producers or rappers from over twenty different countries. The most notable people from the United States are producer and filmmaker Jenova 7 from Boston; rapper and songwriter Chel Strong from Detroit; producer and teacher Erik Jackson from Florida; and producer Batsauce also from Florida.

 

In Europe I’ve worked with people like Bradata and VPD from Bulgaria who respectively run a TripHop radio show in Varna, and the net-label Dusted Wax Kingdom. Then there is Undogmatic from Portugal, Sick Rat from Italy and my Berlin comrade Marius Gold, who’s an engineer and producer.

 

CF: You recently told me you’re working on nine projects at the moment: what are they? And how can people access your work?

 

CT: Ha ha, yeah. Some of these projects are still in developmental stage, and need a real direction first. Others are beginning to form into shape and might only need one or two songs to complete – like my EP ‘El Nacimiento de Con Quixote’ with Buenos Aires producer Darkside.

 

I am currently finishing up an EP with Sick Rat called ‘Seeing Naples’, an EP with Erik Jackson called ‘The Learning Curve’ and one with Batsauce called ‘New Horizons’. All of these will be released in the first half of 2017. Everything else is too early to say. People can mostly access my work through Soundcloud and Bandcamp, though my first album [‘Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove’] appears to be on Spotify as well. My second album ‘Grimoire Capricornus’ will be out this month [January 2017].

On home turf in Neukölln. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: You often hear writers talk about “catching” stories as they pass close to them from seemingly out of nowhere: is this how it is for you? Or do your words and narratives well up inside you from deep within (rather than from ‘without’)?

 

CT: I never sit down to think about what I’m going to write. I live my life, walk the streets at night, think about ideas, people, events, relationships. I discuss these things with friends.

 

When my thoughts have formed and I’ve received the perfect canvas from one of my musical colleagues, only then do I begin writing. At this point the idea is already there, only the sentences need forming. Call it being “impulsively creative”. Random energy spikes instead of a continuous flow.

 

CF: What do you think makes a great story?

 

CT: Let them come from profound inspiration, and/or a real place. Let the characters be relatable and detailed, the sentences flow naturally and beautifully, and the scenery evoke images and memories to bring the story arc to life. Or, you could just tell it as it is, from your heart. The connection between storyteller and audience matters.

 

CF: What ambitions do you have with your music? And with your ‘spoken word’ performances?

 

CT: I’m still figuring that one out… As a youth, I wanted to be the greatest rapper ever. I was hyper-ambitious, obsessed with fame and greatness. I was also insecure behind my mask of boisterous confidence in my skill.

 

Today, after a myriad of setbacks and lessons, I would rather focus on the craft and the people I do this with and for: let them carry me where I am supposed to be. I am confident in my skill and power as an artist, but also humbled. I want to be seen and heard and felt, like everyone does.

 

I’d prefer to live from my art like everyone does. But really my work is more important than me or my ambitions: give me a million bucks and I’d probably invest all of it back into my art. I don’t care for material possessions or prestige. I would rather die poor than compromise my integrity. I guess I’m more Nikola Tesla than Thomas Edison!

 

As far as my spoken word exploits go, they go hand-in-hand with music – it’s all the same thing for me. My real ambition lies in my creative work, not its outcome.

 

CF: Can you share your experiences from some of your most memorable gigs?

 

CT: I remember a gig back in 2007 with a collective of people I used to run with called Styleworxxx. We performed at the Matrix/Narva Lounge [Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg area of Berlin]. It was an event run by different schools from Reinickendorf so all the bands were school bands except for us. I knew like 70 percent of the people who attended, none of whom to that point had taken me seriously as a rapper.

 

A former friend and I premiered a song called ‘Inhale, Exhale’, and by the second chorus everyone in the place was chanting it with us. I get goosebumps still thinking about that one! A lot of people would eat their previous sly remarks that day.

 

Then there are the monthly storytelling events at Lagari that Amelia runs [Australian comedian/producer Amelia Jane Hunter]. Those are always magical and cathartic for me as I get to experience different styles of orating and storytelling, and I can simply speak from my soul to people. And how could I forget some of the ‘Sunday Slips’ I’ve done! [Run by American-Colombian performer Liliana Velásquez]. Sometimes the level of talent is just mind-boggling, with the energy carried from performer-to-performer. I am looking forward to more memorable performances to come.

A place for contemplation: Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What role do you think the spoken word performer has in Western culture? Is it growing or dying as an art form?

 

CT: When I say “spoken word” people always assume [I mean] “poetry slams”. While I respect the artists performing at slams, the competitive format does not hold the same intrigue for me as it did in my youth. I just want to connect with people through my work.

 

What’s the role of a spoken word performer? Prove that attention spans aren’t as short as people often lament, maybe? I think all artists essentially have the same role, no matter what vehicle of expression they use. Some are here to entertain, others to soothe troubled spirits, then some are here to rattle cages and shake the foundations of people’s belief systems.

 

Is it growing or dying? It’s here, still. That’s what matters. It’ll stay here, if I’ve anything to say about it.

 

CF: What is it that drives you to make music, produce art, get up on a stage?

 

CT: I simply must. If I do not record or perform for a month or so, I get cranky like people get “hangry”. I start to get pissed off at little things, snap at people, begin to dislike myself, begin to doubt my purpose. My brain is a perpetuum mobile: if I didn’t express everything that went on in my head I’d punch walls and scream out of the window or something.

 

I can wear people out during conversation, so to spare them I simply have to write, record and perform focused work. Creative expression frees me, rids me of negativity. Keeps me sane. I cannot survive without it.

 

CF: Finally: five of your favorite words – and why.

 

CT: 1.Motherfucker”. I say it at least ten times a day in different tones. Sometimes to express annoyance or admiration, sometimes as a nuclear punctuation mark. The “mother” part is often mouthed like a groan or muttered under my breath, and then the sharp “-fucker” part comes in like a flying guillotine. I just love this word, ha ha!

 

2.Person”. It is utterly neutral. It merely denotes a single entity of the human species. I get tired of the gender, race, faith and general identity wars people inflict upon each other on a daily basis: they discriminate against one another based on the category they either put themselves or others in, while disregarding the actual issues they face.

 

3. “Earth”. Earth: our home. Our foundation for life to grow in. The element of my sun sign, Capricorn. A resting place for deceased life forms. The smell of it after rainfall. The connotations we’ve added: “earthy”, “down-to-earth”. I love all of it.

 

4. “Craft”. The dedication to mastering a skill, the process of creating a piece derived from that skill, the “craftsmanship” of it and its appreciation, the attention to detail, the imagination, the execution. You cannot be a great craftsman without passion. I don’t do anything without passion because I have pride in my craft.

 

5. “Code”. It does not only describe a sequence to unlock or initiate something, it also means the tenets one lives by. At fifteen I devised my own personal code of conduct with people; I have never veered from it since. It’s brought me much hardship, but also filtered people. Those that didn’t belong stayed away from me. Those that did became my friends.

 

 With many thanks to Cedric Till for his words, time and the photo shoot.


 

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Let Them Eat Cake: Lyndal Walker

Posted on January 3, 2017

I’ve always been fond of ‘goo’.

 

It’s the name of my favorite Sonic Youth album. It’s one of my favorite words, caught somewhere between “coo” and “gum”.

 

And ‘goo’ has always been one of my favorite things to eat, especially if it’s coloured pastel pink. Growing up in the 70s I consumed my fair share, especially ‘Junket‘, one of my mother’s specialties.

 

It would arrive as ‘sweets’ at dinner parties, often on the heels of pineapple ham steaks or chicken chow mein. It was the gelatinous, wobbly version of musk sticks, fridge-set, in tall curvy glasses on stems. A sugar coma in the making, us kids couldn’t get enough of it.

 

All these years later and on the other side of the world, Junket oozed its way back into my memory at a recent “work-in-progress” screening at the Australia Council’s residential artist studio in Berlin. It was for short video The End Of The Sausage Fest, made by Melbourne’s gleefully subversive art+craft collective, Hotham Street Ladies, with two members, Australian artists Lyndal Walker and Caroline Price, in situ.

 

Projected onto a wall of “international culture centre” Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Lyndal’s current base as a recipient of its artist-in-residency program), the film was an apt offering to the centre’s annual “open studio” menu. Made after a humid, heady afternoon at Thai Park (a local open-air foodie paradise), the Ladies’ luminescent symphony of goo certainly did “playfully explore patriarchy, decadence and male privilege.”

 

I was among the silhouetted group entranced by this silent visual loop, watching mounds of sticky pink icing unceremoniously plop onto of all manner of oral indulgence, the remnants of which can only be described as a disgracefully decadent dinner party. The phallus of a dead cigar included, it was as if Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover had been stuck in a blender, covered in pink icing and served up for our rapidly-diminishing attentions spans. It was enough to make you reach for a doggy bag or laugh-out-loud in gallows humour.

 

Eat The Rich. Repeat.

‘The End Of The Sausage Fest’ video by The Hotham Street Ladies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Hotham Street Ladies in Berlin: Caroline Price & Lyndal Walker, Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

Clearly a fan of goo and its power to revolt, engage and entertain, Lyndal Walker is a photo-based artist with a penchant for “disruption”. As it says on the KB website, Lyndal’s work “emerges out of an ambivalent relationship to consumer culture.  She is fascinated by our voraciousness but also finds it deeply morbid. While she has often used photography in her work, she is interested in disrupting the role of the photographer.  She has extended her conceptual concerns to destabilise the photographic object by printing her images on silk scarves or mounting them on mirrors.”

 

After a long-time flirtation with Berlin – and spurred on by a chance meeting with a member of indie-pop royalty – Lyndal finally arrived to live in April 2015. She’s found the right city in which to make her art, one renowned for questioning norms and criticizing the ‘status quo’. And, embracing those who do.

 

Lyndal is interested in disturbing standards – especially entrenched ways of looking at the world. An artist with a long list of credits (her first solo show was in 1994), she’s working both on individual projects and collaborations during her 12-month Berlin residency, including one with painter Tony Clark, about Rowland S. Howard, the late Australian post-punk guitarist, himself a former Berliner. A solo exhibition in April 2017 is also on the cards as part of her residency.

 

The enormous Licht Fabrik building in which Lyndal’s studio is housed is a former light factory, re-purposed to support a myriad of progressive artists, gallery spaces and start-ups. The labyrinthine structure goes on for days.

 

It’s a spacious, historic and fertile place for making art, conversation and more, as I discovered when we met for Circus Folk.


Lyndal Walker in her Berlin studio. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: I believe it was a long time ambition to live and work in Berlin: what was your trajectory, and motivation to move here?

Lyndal Walker: I first came to Berlin in 1996, as part of a backpacking trip when I was 22. A good friend from Melbourne (now a gallerist here in Berlin) had moved here and I stayed with him in the then-very rough Neukölln.

 

Honestly I wonder why I loved it so much then: it was the middle of one of the coldest winters for decades –  minus 22 degrees – and Berlin was very different. It was very poor and not full of the bourgeois delights of bars, cafes and galleries that it is now.

 

I really would have loved to have moved then, but it wasn’t easy to get visas and learning a new language was a hurdle I wasn’t willing to jump at that time. I kept visiting. In 2014 I was here and I just had this thought going around my head, “why don’t I move to Berlin?”

 

I don’t usually tell this story because one of the nice things about Berlin is [that] celebrity culture isn’t really respected here. But here goes: by chance I met Michael Stipe at an exhibition opening. We got chatting and I said I was having this thought about moving to Berlin.

 

He said “how are your parents?” I told him my father was dead and my mother in good health. He said “well you must move to Berlin now,” and I knew he was totally right. It was a very well placed question.

 

CF: Has Berlin met your “expectations” so far? As a place for your practice and a culture in which to live?

LW: I couldn’t say what my expectations were, but what I can say is that I feel very stimulated here and I realised, once I’d decided to leave Melbourne, that I really hadn’t felt very stimulated there for some years.

 

I feel Berlin offers me lots of new information and life challenges as well as art to see and artists to meet, so as a culture and place for my practice, it’s great. It’s a very dynamic place but unlike other cultural capitals like London or New York, it’s not very consumerist.

 

It’s calm and cheap, but really exciting.

 

Lyndal Walker and ‘The Artist’s Model’. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Sometimes people (especially ‘creative folk’) have romantic ideas about moving to Berlin: that it’s all ‘beer and skittles’, a 100% party town with arty types on every corner doing whatever they like with very little. What has the experience – and transition – been like so far for you?

LW: Having spent quite a lot of time here before, I had a pretty good idea [about] what living here would be like. I had dreaded the winter and it’s not easy but actually I like the way Berlin is a completely different city across the seasons.

 

As for “beer and skittles” and “creative people on every corner”, I’m glad it’s not like that. The jugglers are one of my least favourite aspects of the city and thankfully they are not around in winter!

 

It’s a great city for me. It’s very stimulating and a lot of the things I’m particularly interested in are really fundamental here. For example there is lots of experimentation with different ways for living, whether it be artist-led projects, communal living or polyamory. People really play with gender and its representation a lot here.

 

I’m not really sure what opportunities will come here. I’m still in the early days of establishing my practice in Europe. For one thing, being in the centre of Europe makes having an exhibition in Stockholm – as I did last year – a lot easier than if I was in Australia.

 

Berlin is just a great city to be an artist in very practical ways, because there are so many of us here. So when you front up to the glass cutters for example, they’re not surprised you’re an artist and they are happy to do things differently, or know that it’s important for things to be well finished. Even going to the accountant is a whole lot easier. Apparently there are even therapists here who only work with artists.

 

CF: For how long have you been an artist? And do you remember the moment when you realised – or decided – that this is what you wanted to do?

LW: I’m one of those rare people who always wanted to be an artist although in reality I didn’t know what that meant when I was a kid, because I never knew other artists until I went to art school.

 

Of course I was encouraged to do something more practical, and actually I had a lucky break when the then-Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, sacked so many teachers in the 90s, because I’d told my parents I would do teaching after my fine art degree and become a teacher.

 

By the time I graduated that was as impractical as being an artist!

Work by The Hotham Street Ladies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Lyndal Walker. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

CF: Last July you received your first grant from the Australia Council, which supports a unique artist residency in Berlin at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a cultural institution “whose goal is to further contemporary art and contemporary artists”.

 

How difficult was it to get into, and what does it mean to you to receive this kind of support at this point in your career: is it encouraging?

 

LW: I first applied for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien studio in 1996. And while I haven’t applied every year, I’ve probably applied about six or seven times, and well, it’s been twenty years in the making.

 

There are nineteen other artists in the building from countries including Korea, Ethiopia, Iceland, Canada and Cyprus, so it is genuinely international.

 

Yes of course it’s encouraging. Most artists struggle with a sense of self-worth and wonder what the point of their practice is, particularly when it cost us so much financially and personally. I wasn’t getting very many opportunities in Australia in the last few years so this is a very positive development for me.

 

To be supported for a year in a beautiful studio surrounded by other artists is great in so many ways.

 

 

Artist Lyndal Walker with a work from her ‘Silk Cut’ series. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: As an artist you have developed a number of interests and ‘lines of inquiry’ in your work, and moved from painting to photography, combining both within your practice and image making. Could you please give us an idea as to where you started and where you’ve ended up in terms of themes you’ve explored? Especially with regard to your more recent projects?

LW: When I started exhibiting I was very interested in fashion and I was quite obsessed with the passing of time. I’ve also always been interested in the politics of representation, particularly as it relates to gender roles. My interests in fashion have moved towards a particular interest in the process of dressing and states of undress.

 

I’ve always been interested in the way women bond over clothing. It is both a way of expressing ourselves and a subject to communicate about. As my practice has developed, I’ve become more interested in the metaphorical aspects of dress and undress, so issues such as exposure, shame and vulnerability are of increasing interest to me.

 

I’m also really interested in materials related to fashion, like silk and mirrors. In ‘Modern Romance’ and ‘Silk Cut’, my interests in fashion and sexual imagery intersect. In ‘Silk Cut‘ I’ve printed images of men (images of erect penises) on silk scarves. It’s the first time I’ve made a wearable object.

 

My concern with representation has most recently manifested in my being present in my images, taking the photos of young men in the series ‘The Artist’s Model‘. I’ve also become more interested in contemporary images like those found in sexting and porn.

 

CF: There is an unabashed voyeuristic aspect to your work, in as much as you’re interested in the process of looking, and making that quite overt: from the subjects of your work looking directly at the viewer and you placing yourself in your work, to looking at (and making photos of) your subjects. Looking is something we do prolifically and often without much conscious thought or attention: so what is it about “looking” and the act of it that attracts you as an artist? And what are you trying to say to us about it?

LW: Interesting question! I am really interested in questioning images and drawing attention to the fact that you are looking at a picture, and that its relationship to reality is not entirely smooth.  Using frames, collage and including myself in my images, I hope to inspire people to ask questions about the images they see around them.

 

I’m also interested in truth and fiction and how we distinguish between them. I like storytelling, particularly when it challenges the nature of reality. I’m always been interested in communication, and ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ are forms of communication.

 

I often wonder about the value of art and how we might make any difference to the world with it. We are surrounded by images, and from early in my career I was interested in advertising. Although my work addresses that in less literal ways now, I think it’s important that we are constantly questioning the images which sell us not only products, but expectations about our lives and bodies.  The nature of visual art is that we are looking at it, so I think art is still a great place to explore the nature of beauty and if it is important.

 

Recently I’ve been thinking what a privilege it is for straight men to constantly see images of beautiful women often without much on. They have their sexuality and desire regularly reaffirmed and stimulated. And this is a way in which ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ are part of power relations in our lives.

 

CF: There is an undertone of ‘profanity’ (explicit nudity, sexuality) that has also popped up in your work too – from the “penis scarves” to images in the ‘Modern Romance’ series. When did you start to bring that into your work? And what ideas are you exploring in this arena?

LW: The profanity is relatively new, since a show I did in Melbourne in 2013. I’ve always rather delighted in the chasteness of my previous images of people in their underwear. But even with ‘Silk Cut’, the larger than life erect penis is usually hidden within the soft folds of the silk, so it’s not so explicit either.

 

Those images are inspired by sexting and as such continue my interest in the role of the photograph in our lives and to our identities. I’ve always been interested in identity so an aspect of that work is to wonder, if you receive an image of a penis, does it belong to the person who sent it? And how important is a man’s penis to his identity?

 

I’m also interested in the fact that men’s bodies are now being fragmented through imagery, in the same way that women’s have always been. As with most of my work, it’s an experiment: What is it for a woman to wear an image of a penis around her neck?

 

I have become more interested in porn and kink since I’ve been living in Berlin. In Australia I didn’t really think of porn as something that might inform my work, but in Berlin sexuality is taken seriously as an intellectual pursuit. Also there are things like the Berlin Porn Film Festival, which shows challenging, non-exploitative works so I’m more engaged with ‘profanity’ here. Kink is interesting to me because of the way it playfully explores power dynamics.

 

People are very open about their bodies here. You often see nude people in the park. I need to be more prepared next spring with good underwear because if it’s a sunny day, people will get down to their knickers at a picnic! There’s also such a massive kink scene so people are speaking very openly about their sexual desires.

 

I’m not sure how literally my work will reflect these interests, but for now they are inspiring lots of interesting thought.

In black & white: Lyndal Walker. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

CF: The Hotham Street Ladies have become a bit of an institution in Melbourne. For those who may not be familiar, could you please provide a ‘snapshot’ of the collective? And more of an insight into the new video project The End Of The Sausage Fest that was made at your Berlin studio?

LW: There are five Hotham Street Ladies and we all met living in a share household in Collingwood, Melbourne. We started by making a couple of recipe books for our friends and then we made some cakes that we submitted to the Royal Melbourne Show. Then some street art.

 

Then things got a bit more serious with a permanent public work on Hoddle Street in Melbourne and various installations, including a major work as part of ‘Melbourne Now‘ at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013.

 

These days, Caroline Price and I work together in Europe, and Cassandra Chilton, Molly O’Shaughnessy and Sarah Parkes work in Melbourne. When I was in Melbourne earlier in 2016, we brainstormed a work that the Melbourne crew made and which is currently on at The Johnston Collection in Melbourne. And in a rare moment all of us were together to install a work at Shepparton Art Museum in February.

 

The End of The Sausage Fest is a video that Caroline Price and I made in my Australia Council studio in July ’16. We set up a scene which we thought of as a kind of ‘power dinner’ but with a lot of stuff that was moldy and rotting. We had been talking with frustration about a lot of self-serving male leaders: we were thinking of some of the really rotting and rotten patriarchal values which are now being exposed and challenged. The video involves a flood of pink icing and glitter that subsumes all the rotten old leftovers.

 

CF: Was it a fun project?

LW: Although the last thing any of us want to do is eat icing, I think the nature of icing and cake is that it is fun and celebratory. Sometimes I feel when we’re developing ideas that we are on a sort of ‘sugar high’. What’s not to like about thinking up food metaphors for cunnilingus or making cigarette butts out of icing?!

 

As a solo artist, working in a group is very liberating. You can really delight in one another’s work, and the sort of doubts I struggle with in my solo practice are much more quickly resolved in a group. I think one of the things that’s great about HSL is that it does reflect the satisfaction a lot of women find in making things, and the fun and support you get from working with a community of other women.

 

 

CF: Speaking of collaborations, you’re in a long-term and long distance one with painter Tony Clark. It has tendrils in both Melbourne and Berlin, courtesy of the late Australian musician, Rowland S. Howard

LW: I saw Rowland Howard’s final gig in 2009 and he had this incredible quality which made me really want to photograph him. He was very frail, but kind of boyish at the same time, [and] in a way that was similar to the young men I’d photographed in ‘Stay Young’.

 

I mentioned this to Tony who said he wanted to paint Rowland’s portrait. Tony was an old friend of Rowland’s and arranged for us to make our portraits together but Rowland died before we could. I was devastated: I was a massive Birthday Party fan when I was a teen and always felt sort of ripped off that I hadn’t seen them because I was too young. So missing taking the photo echoed that experience.

 

Tony and I decided to do the work anyway but instead of a photographic portrait, I’ve written about Rowland and my own fandom and the nature of portraiture and the passing of time, while Tony has painted Rowland. It will be a book when we finalise it.

 

CF: As an artist, as it been a tough road to get to this point? What keeps you going?

LW: Sometimes I wonder: these days I feel very strongly that I just am an artist. That I don’t really have a choice. But I wasn’t always so romantic. There’s been two stages in my practice when I very seriously considered quitting and I think that is a really important process that I would encourage all artists to go through. I’ve come back from those periods with more resolve and a clearer sense of what I want to do and why.

 

As for it being a tough road, I’ve been fortunate to have had some great opportunities, but they don’t always lead to other opportunities. So there’s not much sense of your career ‘growing’ in the same way most people’s careers do with more status and more money. Of course it’s such a privilege to be able to spend time following your obsessions and developing something that is so personal. On the other hand, you have to constantly motivate yourself and face a lot of rejection. It’s good to be in Europe where being an artist is respected.

 

About ten years ago I had a really hard look at my practice and career and asked myself what I was getting from it and what I wanted from it. I think the community and friendships around my art practice are the best things. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel with my practice, and as travel has always been important to me, I decided to focus on getting more of those opportunities.

 

So those are some of the things that keep me going, friendship and travel.

 

CF: As a “Wahlberliner” (Berliner by choice), do you have an experience of Berlin that sums up why you enjoy being here?

LW: Recently I’ve noticed how easy it is to be alone here. I always spend a lot of time alone, and in a lot of places that makes you a bit of a pariah – people feel sorry for you or think you need to be talked to. Here, there are always lots of people alone: smoking a joint by the canal, reading a book in a café, eating a nice meal in a restaurant… And your privacy is totally respected and there aren’t needy people trying to engage you in conversation and distract you from your thoughts or books.

 

I think I’d really miss that respect for solitude that Berlin offers.

 

With many thanks to Lyndal Walker.

Fin: ‘The End Of The Sausage Fest’ by The Hotham Street Ladies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016


State of Curiosity

Posted on January 2, 2017

State Festival 2016, at Külhaus, Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In November I had the good fortune to attend STATE Festival, a festival for “Open Science, Art and Society” at Kühlhaus, Berlin.

 

When Berlin turns on a good festival, you really feel it. I had the same range of happy emotions and visceral engagement coursing through my body at spectacular sound festivus Berlin Atonal in 2015.

 

Now in its second year, the theme for this year’s STATE was “Emotion: The Sentimental Machine.” Scientists, researchers, artists, makers, musicians and thinkers from Germany and beyond contributed to what was an incredibly exciting and progressive program, split into several strands: a two-day conference (where research papers were shared), public talks, interactive art installations, workshops, films, and an extensive pre-program of  pop-up labs and workshops, where inter-disciplinary collaborators were brought together to work on various projects, some with seriously fascinating implications for society and culture.

 

The opening night “Warm Up” event manifested as A Night At The Museum, with the main room of Berlin’s famed Naturkundmuseum (“Natural History Museum”) opening to festival guests and the public.

 

Wandering among the interactive installations, beautifully displayed fossils and spectacularly lit dinosaurs,  I half expected the prehistoric beasts to come to life in a ‘ta-daa’ moment of event-appropriate surprise. Once the jungle-esque soundscape by DJ Grizzly subsided, key note speeches began. We listened to STATE’s founder Dr. Christian Rauch, (a physicist with a PhD in nanoscience and excellent taste in electronica), the museum’s Head of Science Programme & Public Engagement Dr. Katrin Vohland and primate research scientist Dr. Katja Liebal, who gave a glimpse into her animal emotions research project with primates.

 

The night set the tone for what was an incredibly exuberant, optimistic and progressive few days: the festival celebrates not only science but its intersections and cross-pollination with other modalities and disciplines – namely the arts, philosophy, medicine and design. Oh – and the public.

 

“Affective research” was high on the agenda with a number of conference panels devoted to the neuroscience behind affect and empathy. Creative research methods were also advocated – including communicating findings via storytelling and creating “narratives” around data.  Open source science and “citizen science” were also embraced, with Katrin Vohland openly declaring Naturkundmuseum’s advocacy for public involvement in scientific “deliberation” during her opening night speech. Word was out: the scientific community needs to change tack if it’s going to be relevant in – and make an impact on – today’s “post truth” society.

 

“Emotions seem to play an increasing role in science and science communication,” she said in her speech. “Scientists have to pack their results into stories. Some researchers already talk about the post-factual era we are entering, opening the room for populism and manipulation.”

 

Could science be letting go of its long-held aversion towards ‘affect’? Is “subjectivity the new black”? Listening to the STATE 2016 discourse, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

 

As we poked around the exhibits opening night, it felt like a dance party for curious people, observing, listening and discussing in unadulterated awe and wonder. It was nice to feel that way again – like delighted, curious children discovering the world for the first time.

Walking with dinosaurs at STATE Festival Opening Night. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

‘Dem bones’. Opening night at Naturkundmuseum, STATE Festival 2016. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

One of the projects that piqued my curiosity was ‘Digesting The Anthropocene‘, devised by American “experimental philosopher” and conceptual artist, Jonathan Keats. Namely as it made manifest the link between mind and body, and the capacity we have for intelligence using our senses (an embodied experience of knowledge, as opposed to purely a cognitive one.) It is based around his theory of “gastronification”, what he calls “an alternative tool for visualising big data”.

 

“Data gastronification is where we might engage the emotional cognition of people’s stomachs and intestines in getting a better understanding of “wicked” problems involving a huge number of different data sets and influencing factors, such as for example, in anthropogenic (human influenced) climate change.”

 

“Instead of visualizing model projections for processing by the visual cortex and brain, Keats’ method makes the data ‘fit for consumption’, literally: flow diagrams are reformulated as recipes, which can be cooked up and digested. Different scenarios and conditions will now be represented in culinary terms.”  (Description from STATE catalogue.)

 

His local collaborators were David Marx, founder of Berlin food lab Science Kitchen; scientific researchers at Berlin’s Futuruim Project, and designer and data visualization specialist Stefan Thiel. The team worked with Keats in an attempt to make the science around climate change “digestible” for the general public, coming up with a recipe for ‘climate change sorbet’ based on three flavour profiles:

  1. Green = low greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Blue = medium C02 emissions, and
  3. Turquoise = high fossil fuel emissions.

The hope being (from my interpretation of it anyway), to create a more inclusive public conversation around the problem of climate change – ie a deeper, less fraught engagement with the problem based on intuitive perception – so that taking action might become a reality rather than a political football.

 

To, as it were, create a solution through shared ‘gut feeling’.

 

It’s a very exciting idea, especially as the scientific evidence around mind/body medicine continues to grow, and the bias against ‘affect’, subjectivity and emotion within the scientific world, diminishes. Listen to my full interview with Jonathon Keats at the audio link below.

 

 

Other highlights from my STATE Festival experience:

  • Listening to the research findings of Cornell University emotions researchers Dr. Adam Anderson and Dr. Eve de Rosa in their work around using feelings or “affect” as valid measures of perception;
  • Dr . Helen Stark’s paper about the “History of Emotion'” and “The Man Of  Feeling” in the Romantic period of literature (Queen Mary University of London);
  • Receiving an immersive sound and touch massage from “sensation composer” Jacques-André Dupont and instrument designer/music composer Clément Destephen, as part of their MIM installation (“The Medium Is The Massage”). It was so beautiful I was moved to tears, and
  • Seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary about the digital age, ‘Lo And Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.’ Sad, funny, frightening, and vintage Herzog.

* * *

And my festival rating? Big happy face emoji : )

Woman of feeling: Dr. Helen Stark, delivering her paper about ‘The Man of Feeling’ in the history of Romantic Literature. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Digesting climate change: Jonathon Keats at STATE Festival, 2016. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

* * *

Words, images and sound (c) Megan Spencer 2016.

  • Discover: the STATE Festival program
  • View: my STATE Festival photo album
  • Eat: the Climate Change Sorbet photo album
  • Listen: to my STATE Festival report on Radio National
  • Hear: the entire Jonathan Keats interview on Soundcloud
  • Visit: STATE Festival on Facebook

Many thanks to the STATE Festival team for support, and to Jonathon Keats for the interview.

In black & white: Penelope Scanlan. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

The Country Inside: Penelope Scanlan

Posted on November 19, 2016

“Greg Miller is one of the photographers who inspires me. I love the aesthetic of his work: the people he photographs are positioned like mannequins and sometimes appear stuck in time. He doesn’t have a huge following on Instagram but he’s one those photographers who deserves a bigger one.”

 

A degree of urgency accompanies this communiqué. I open my inbox only to have its words leap on me, wiping sweat off their brow. I sit up and take notice.

 

Sent to me by Australian photographer Penelope Scanlan, this is the last in a raft of emails we’ve sent  each other over an arc of two years. On an unexpected trip back to Australia this year, I manage to get my shit together – enough to invite Penelope, finally, to convene in the country town I used to call home for five years prior to escaping to Berlin. I want to photograph her for this feature, lolling – as it turns out – on the green grass in front of one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions.

 

She drives several hours to be here, me too, up from Melbourne on a family visit after a season of bereavement. I’m very glad to see her, and to talk about our mutual passion: photography. It’s only the second time we’ve ever met in person, but we get to it pronto.

 

But back to the email, which arrived as an omission needing rectifying as if a life depended on it. She was right. I’d be concerned too if someone didn’t shine a light on this fella, Greg Miller, such is the excellence of his work.

 

She wasn’t just name-dropping; as considered and devoted as Penelope is to her own photography, she’s even more so about the work of others. Generous with her praise. After checking Miller’s website and Instagram account, I was gobsmacked at how he could have slipped through my radar. Unnoticed. Remiss of me. He’s really that good.

 

But so is Penelope. A country grrrl through and through (born in Mansfield, now residing in Northern Victoria after an extended stint in Melbourne), Penelope loves taking photos so much she’s hesitant to talk about it, lest she lose her superpower. Shy, humble, and utterly smitten by making photos, she has the eye of someone who truly gets what it is to be outside of something – in this case the city.

 

Living in the quiet of the country, she’s spent years tuning herself into frequency of being there: the smallness, vastness, the moments – chaotic, still and otherwise.  She has a delicious eye for detail, slipping as easily between the shadowy interiors of farm sheds and sheer-curtained front rooms as she does throbbing B&S crowds or big, fat, country weddings.

 

We might have missed meeting each other, but we didn’t. We’d both driven down from Northern Victoria to attend a photo workshop in Melbourne, quite possibly overtaking each other on solo, long road trips down the Calder, with speakers blaring, unknowingly in parallel.

 

It was a grey, drizzly day, the kind Melbourne likes to turn on in July. Strangers, we finally spoke on the roof of an inner city building, playing with depth of field and light in an exercise led by NZ “pretty light” photographer Peta Mazey.

 

After working out we were the only country grrrls in the room – and at the conclusion of a very enjoyable and informative day wending our way around gear, confetti and ‘TDF’ Melbourne laneways – we pledged to follow each other on Instagram, and, to try and make a photo date somewhere in our mutual, regional backyard.

 

The latter never happened, but the Circus Folk interview I later thought of did. I’m very glad to have met Penelope, and to have found out more about her burgeoning practice and passionate love affair with photography. She has an unashamed fan.


Way out west: Penelope by Kristen Proud (c)

Circus Folk: When we first met, you were living in Northern Victoria, and had just moved there from Melbourne. And – had just started taking your photography “seriously” with the hope of making it your ‘profession’. Could you give me a bit of a “snapshot” (pardon the pun!) of your interest, background, education in photography?

 

Penelope Scanlan: I have always been a bit of a compulsive documenter. It helps me make sense of the world in some way.

 

My interest in photography dates back to high school: I started using the dark room to develop photos and I was hooked! I loved the process of developing my own photos. I loved the quietness and seclusion of the dark room, seeing the image appear on the paper as it sat in the liquid. It was always a dream to have my own dark room as an adult, but it’s never eventuated. I have gotten back into film photography recently, so the dream might still come true!

 

As I got older I became obsessed with photographing my grandmother. I wanted to document her life to try to hold onto as many memories of her as I could. I can hear her say so clearly, “Put that camera away Penny!” I must have thousands of photos of her. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I only got a good camera a few weeks before she died. So although I have lots of photos of her, I only really have a few that I appreciate from a photography perspective.

 

I have also kept a journal since I was 18. Writing helps me process what is going on for me as much as photography does.

 

When I was in high school I applied to study photography at TAFE in Wangaratta. I ended up going to Uni to study a degree in Social Science and never ended up getting any formal training in photography. However I [feel that I] do need to: I sometimes struggle with the technical side of photography, and find that it holds me back in getting the photographs I want to capture.

 

CF: How would you describe your photographic work?

 

PS: I love portrait photography which I think can be attributed to the natural interest and curiosity I have in people and their lives. Like most introverts, I don’t have much interest in small talk and like to get straight into deeper conversations with people: “Who are you really, what makes you happy, what makes you sad…” I also really like taking photos of kids. There is something really joyful in the exchange you can have with kids when taking their photo, especially if you meet them on a playful level.

 

I am really interested in documentary-style photography and would love to develop skills in that area – though I really struggle with the voyeuristic nature of that [kind of] work. When I was travelling in India I was really confronted by the poverty but compelled to photograph it at the same time. It almost felt like ‘poverty porn’ though. I was aware that as someone with the resources to travel and an expensive camera, photographing people living in such poverty can be extremely disrespectful. There is such a huge power imbalance that doesn’t sit well with me. It is something I struggle with every time I travel. Ideally I would love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures to enable me to photograph them. That would be a dream.

"The chair was taken at my Nan's best friends house. She was born in the house and lived there for 94 years. It was like a time capsule." Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c)

“The chair was taken at my Nan’s best friends house. She was born in the house and lived there for 94 years. It was like a time capsule.” Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

I recently realised that I am crap at landscape photography, which was a relief! I also realised that while I appreciate good landscape photography, it isn’t something that interests me personally. It was a relief too – to stop wasting time feeling disappointed with my landscape photos!

 

At the same time, I love to take photos of houses and architecture of any kind. I love the way the shapes and textures intersect. I was recently in Greece and was more interested in taking photos of the shapes that occur when you don’t have the whole house in a frame, than the more traditional ‘tourist’ shots.

In Greece. (c) Penelope Scanlan

In Greece. (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: What is your “day job”?

 

PS: I am a Youth Worker and absolutely love it! I am fortunate in that I have a profession I am passionate about and enjoy. I bummed around a lot in my 20s, and had a struggle with mental health issues. I worked in security and in the real estate industry. Neither job really fitted with my values. I think it was inevitable that I would end up working in the community sector in some capacity.

 

I currently have two jobs: I work four days a week as a Youth Development Officer in local government. (This role is mainly around developing leadership programs for young people in secondary school.) I also work one day a week as a School Chaplain at a primary school. This role has been fantastic and has opened up a new area of interest for me. I use art as a way of engaging with the kids, and as a tool to get them to open up.

 

When I first started in that role I was surprised to see that kids have such a lack of inhibition when it comes to making art: they just start drawing without thinking too much about what they’re doing. We lose that as adults and become so self-conscious that many of us stop creating altogether, which is such a shame!

 

I’ve also started doing a bit of photography at both jobs. I usually take a camera to work if we have something on. This year the primary school had an event for Mother’s Day which included family portraits of all of the kids with their mums/carers. I think I did about 80 family portraits in two hours! I was so buggered, but it was such a gift to give some families who don’t have the economic capacity to have family portraits taken.

img_5195

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: And your own photography practice and business: how has it evolved?

 

PS: I don’t have a photography business, but I do the occasional family portrait session. I have been really held back by a lack of confidence in my photography skill and ability: I’ve spent too much time looking at the work of really amazing photographers and comparing myself [to them]. I don’t even refer to myself as a photographer – I always refer to myself as someone who likes to take photos. My partner has said that this devalues my work, which I agree. Trying to step up and have some ownership over this is something I am working on…

 

CF: You can really feel regional Australia in your work: you express a really intimate understanding of living outside of a big city in your images, albeit understated and subtle. Will you continue to remain there do you think? Or are other places calling?

 

PS: I was born in Mansfield and lived there throughout my life. Both my grandparents lived in Mansfield and I spent a lot of time with them as an adult. They have both died over the last few years and I now have a strange relationship with Mansfield. It is a town that I feel immensely proud of and connected to, but I also feel like an orphan there in some respects. I would like to move back there but think I would be haunted by the legacy of both grandparents.

 

I currently live in Northern Victoria. I like where I like but I don’t love it. I have been planning to move since I moved here two and a half years ago. However, I love both my jobs, my family live here and my girlfriend is also here, so there are a few factors that have made it difficult to move away.

 

I have been keeping an eye out for interesting work in remote Indigenous communities. I am part Indigenous and would really love to connect with culture. I imagine the photographic opportunities would be amazing.

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

the grass is greener: Penny at Lake Weeroona. Photo: (c) Megan Spencer 2016

The grass is greener: Penny portrait by Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What would you say are the main differences between living in urban and regional Australia, for you?

 

PS: The main difference for me has been community. There is a much greater sense of community living in a country town. You know your neighbours – people wave and are generally a lot friendlier. People are also a lot more trusting in the country; lots of people still don’t lock their doors. While I have really enjoyed this greater sense of community, I really miss the queer community of inner city Melbourne where I lived. There are queer people here but I definitely feel exposed as a lesbian in a way I never did in Melbourne.

 

I have also experienced homophobia since living here. My partner and I went out on New Year’s Eve and we had lots of comments in the pub. One person actually shook my hand and ask if I was my partner’s boyfriend (even though I am clearly a woman). I hadn’t experienced homophobia like that in years in Melbourne. Politics is also a huge difference. I currently live in a safe National seat and it is not uncommon for people to like Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, and to express deep anti-asylum seeker sentiment. There is a misconception around here that asylum seekers get more financial benefits than pensioners and so forth. That has been a real shock. When I lived in Melbourne I was safely entrenched in the queer, left, artsy community, and I miss that.

Fred Brophy's boxing tent, Cape York. Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2015

Fred Brophy’s boxing tent, Cape York. Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2015

Another big difference is access to services. There is a four-week wait to see some GPs here; I have had to travel to the closest regional city to access a dentist – a three-hour round trip! And I still haven’t found anywhere to get a good haircut! But all in all, country life is good. There is no traffic and I am home from work in less than a minute, which you can’t beat!

 

CF: Do you think living in regional Victoria gives you opportunities with your photography that, in the city (where it can is more populated and competitive), that you might not have found? And are you happier in the country over the city?

 

PS: Living in the country has given me opportunities with my photography that I wouldn’t have had in Melbourne. There is a bit of a niche market for my photography here – that has been great. I was pretty unhappy in the last few years I lived in Melbourne. I had a stressful job at local government, I felt isolated, my mental health wasn’t great. I kept wondering if I was living the best life for me. So the move has been good in that respect.

 

However I don’t feel settled here. Ideally I would like to live somewhere where there is a bit of a queer/art/sustainability community. I am also over three and a half hours from Melbourne, which is too far. That’s a long drive to go for a swim at the beach, or to visit friends.

 

CF: Other than Greg Miller (!), do you have any other photography or creative “heroes” who inspire you and motivate you to keep you going?

 

PS: One photographer whose work really inspired me years ago was Nan Goldin. She is known for her personal and candid photography work and documenting the lives of LGBTQ community, particularly in the 1980s. I found her work when I was on the verge of coming out and hadn’t yet connected with the LGBTQ community in Melbourne. I also love the voyeuristic nature of her work. It feels like you are privy to some very personal moments.

 

I also love the story of Vivian Maier. Besides loving her work, I love that it was discovered years after her death. Like many photographers, her work was very personal and she seemingly loved photography for the process of actually taking the photos, not for any recognition. And I am also inspired by the work of Howard Arkley and Jeffery Smart, both Australian artists who were preoccupied with depictions of Australian suburbia. I’ve recently discovered a love for photographing architecture. I love finding beauty in the shapes and textures. I went to New Zealand earlier this year and realised that I suck at landscape photography! My favorite photo from that trip was of a very ordinary, suburban house.

 

I love the quote by Ansel Adams: ‘Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I just returned from the Greek Islands and felt frustrated that I didn’t get more photos that I love. But I did take three of my most favourite photos I have ever taken, which I am really happy about. I think that we can put too much pressure on ourselves to be constantly creating amazing art, when in reality the creative process doesn’t work like that. It is important to remind ourselves of that.

This "was taken on a boat at Milford Sound (NZ). It rained so hard that day and I kept running outside to take photos then back in, trying to not let my camera get too wet. I snapped this from inside the boat looking out." Penelope Scanlan (c) 2016

“This photo was taken on a boat at Milford Sound (NZ). It rained so hard that day and I kept running outside to take photos then back in, trying to not let my camera get too wet. I snapped this from inside the boat looking out.” Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2016

CF: Whatever you think of “social media”, many artists do find that Instagram provides them with a positive or tangible sense of ‘creative community. Do you?

 

PS: I am quite obsessed with Instagram. I love the work of Nicole Mason and Christian Watson – specifically the tone of their photographs. Christian has also been very open about his battle with mental ill health and talks about kindness. I love that message. I also love the work of Jill & Kyla (Our Wild Abandon). They are best friends driving across the USA and having a wonderful adventure – I love the idea of giving away the 9-5 lifestyle and embarking on a great adventure! I also love the aesthetic of AmericaIsDead. Locally, the work of Andrea (@mylittlewildlings). She takes beautiful photos of her kids.

 

There are definitely two sides to [Instagram] though. As a photographer it can push you to continue to improve your photography and inspire you to get out and take photographs. It also provides a platform to promote your work and display your photography.

 

However, there’s also a negative side: as a photographer it can impact on your self-esteem if you get caught in the trap of comparing your work to that of others. It is good to remind yourself that a lot of people on that site are professional photographers. And if you’re feeling a bit depressed it can also be a trap looking at people and their ‘perfect lives’ filled with loving family. It is important to remind yourself that it is a ‘curated space’.

 

The other negative is the environmental impact that it is having: I have heard stories of people causing damage to delicate ecosystems in an attempt to get a good photo. I know some photographers won’t add a location to their photographs to limit the number of people visiting sites.

 

The main ‘return’ Instagram gives me is the continued push to improve my photography – technically and creatively. I have also found a small supportive community of like-minded photographers through Instagram (including yourself!) Overall I think the main thing that sustains me in my work is the sheer joy I get in taking photos. I am happy to go anywhere, as long as I can take my camera and take photos.

 

CF: Lots of people these days dream of a “tree” or “sea change” – ie moving to a regional area in Australia (you and I both did this!) It’s kind of a romantic notion – and it can be a big shock when you land in a smaller place to live from a city life. How did you find your initial transition from city to country life? Personally and professionally?

 

PS: I was born in Mansfield but moved to Melbourne to go to Uni after year 12. I lived in inner city Melbourne for twenty years and was really happy there for the most part. I do think that a lot of people who grow up in the country end up living back in the country. The busyness of Melbourne became too much for me in the end. I was sick of the traffic and living so close to my neighbours.

 

The initial transition was really difficult. I moved from North Fitzroy to a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere. It was such a culture shock. I had trouble adjusting to the quietness of the farm, having to be vigilant for snakes and sharing a house again after having lived alone for 15 years. I think the hardest transition was being away from friends and having a hard time trying to connect with people and make new friends. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to make friends in some of these small communities, especially if you don’t have kids who play sport. Sport seems to be the main way that people connect.

 

Professionally it was difficult. I had a break from work because I was burnt out. When I decided I wanted to work again there were no employment opportunities in the community sector here. I ended up milking cows and working at an RSL Club. The RSL work was challenging, primarily because I am anti-gambling, [though] I did manage to do a few sneaky counselling sessions with people who clearly had issues with problem gambling. The Club itself did nothing to support people who were problem gamblers. I asked what their policy was on problem gambling and they said there was “a poster up in the toilets”.

 

[When] I moved to Northern Victoria a few years ago, I lived with my sister and her family. I was on the verge of a breakdown after my grandmother died. I think I am only recovering from that grief now. Now I spend a lot of time wondering and talking about where I will move to next. That is a dangerous trap as it means it is hard to live in and enjoy the present moment. If anyone has any ideas of where I should move to next, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

CF: When I moved away from Melbourne to Sydney (ages ago now!), I felt a pretty big sense of sense of isolation which really set in after a particularly difficult relationship break-up. To recover – and to overcome an overwhelming sense of vulnerability – I picked up a Lomo camera and began to connect with my new city and life by really giving it some focused attention through the lens of that camera. It’s something I still do to this day, whenever I move anywhere new…

 

I’m curious as to what kind of a relationship you’re “in” with your camera: have you ever used it “therapeutically” as I did? Or in other ways that sustain you – in addition to professionally?

 

PS: I definitely have a therapeutic relationship with my camera. As long as I am taking photos, I am happy. I don’t even need to show one single person the photos I take, it is entirely in the process of actually having a camera in my hand and composing and taking the photo. When I moved here [to Northern Victoria] I went through a creative burst. I was taking about 700 photos a day consistently for a couple of months. My camera needed to be repaired at one point and I totally freaked out! I wasn’t sure how I would cope without it. I also spend every night editing photos, which I don’t enjoy nearly as much as the process of taking photos.

 

I would say that photography is the most important protective factor in managing my mental health. It not only gives me something to do, it provides me with an opportunity to connect with people and places. It also gives me something to aim for, to always try to get better and produce better work.

 

Feedback from others also helps with that. A little bit of positive feedback about your work certainly makes you feel good.

 

CF: I love the intimacy of taking photos and documenting: what do you enjoy about – and receive from – photographing people and places? Do you find it empowering? If so, how?

 

I love the intimacy of taking photos. You can get access to people in a way that others do not. There is also a vulnerability of having your photo taken. It is important that you treat that vulnerability with respect and kindness. When you can help people feel relaxed and feel comfortable, you end up with much better, more intimate photos. I would love to work on a project where I could combine photographing people and recording their stories. I love hearing how couples met and fell in love, and would like to do a project to record that.

 

There is also great joy in giving people good photos of themselves and their families, especially people who haven’t ever had professional photos taken. I can’t imagine the joy really skillful photographers must feel, especially those who capture special days such as weddings etc.

 

I recently had someone write on my Facebook page that my photos of Greece were fantastic, and that she had never wanted to go somewhere as much as she had seeing my photos. That was pretty ace!

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: Is there a story that comes to mind about a memorable photo shoot?

 

PS: I was scheduled to do a family portrait at a family’s house and was chatting to the kids prior to going there, and one of the kids said to me, “Good luck, we have booby trapped our entire house!” They also asked me why I was driving a “shit bomb of a car”. They certainly kept me on my toes – I think they’re the only family I’ve ever photographed where I didn’t get a good shot of the whole family together. They had five boys under ten!

 

CF: And what is the most valuable thing you have learned so far, about being a photographer?

 

PS: The most important thing I have learned is that making people feel comfortable is one of the most important things you can do to get good images. I hate having my photograph taken and feel really self-conscious in front of the camera. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking photos of others…

 

Huge thanks to Penelope Scanlan for the interview and photos!


  • Interview: Penelope Scanlan
  • Credited photos: courtesy of Penelope Scanlan
  • Words, other photos + edit: Megan Spencer
  • Follow: Penelope on Instagram
  • View: my photo album from Photo School
  • Visit: Greg Miller’s website
  • More: about Photo School’s courses
Super woman: Casey Jenkins, Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

Pussy Riot: Casey Jenkins

Posted on September 20, 2016

When I watch ‘Vaginal Knitting’, the video of Casey Jenkins’ performance installation Casting Off My Womb, I see a powerful, graceful figure at work.

 

With her beatific smile, the artist looks like some kind of angel as she sits there, back perfectly straight, quietly going about the business of knitting, using wool she has buried deep inside her vagina…

 

The yarn hanging above her is so pearly white it shimmers: the only thing that’s missing from this picture is a pair of wings. Wings that in my opinion belong to a bit of a superhero…

 

A simulacrum of historic portraiture also erupts from this moment of looking: centuries cascade across the image. It becomes a critical reflection on the historic act of men painting women – of men representing how women ‘should’ look to the rest of the world – through the rarefied, patriarchal, exclusive act of painting them.

 

Except in this instance ‘the portrait’ has been subverted, and cleverly perverted. For the author of this portrait is a woman, the woman in the picture. She has taken control: of her likeness, her body – and what happens to it – during the artwork. (It is a temporal still life.) While on the surface the ‘subject’ – artist Casey Jenkins – may resemble that of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, this portrait is very unlike the depictions we’re so used to seeing by the so-called “masters”. No-one owns her; she owns her self. She has agency.

 

If we accept this art we must also accept it goes beyond boundaries of ‘taste’. It is a portrait happily, naturally, stained with the menstrual blood that defines the artist-subject’s sex. She demands that we accept femininity – and therefore by definition, that it is powerful on its own terms. It is creative, free, beautiful, messy, real, radical, political, and, as valid as any art created by a man.

 

Perhaps this is why Casting Off Her Womb caused such controversy: within the silence of this contemplative, profane work is a defiant questioning of not only the validity of male representation of the female form (via art, throughout eons of history), but the validity of male art, period. The work demands that we validate Casey’s right to flout conventions of taste, thereby ‘unsilencing’ femininity within art and culture.

Tell 'em boots... Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Tell ’em boots… Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Maybe that’s what stuck in everyone’s craw – that it was an implied “fuck you” to not one or two, but generations of revered male artists, towards whom we have historically ‘looked to’ for moral guidance and the definition of beauty. It’s a “fuck you” to our collective fall back position of “father knows best”…

 

And that she dared to use her own body as the site of this subversive commentary.

 

Ironic then that such a still, contemplative work would cause such a loud, surging, abrasive noise – and an ugly, frenzied, thuggish controversy. So far seven million-plus people have viewed the video: it was – and continues to be – a “Yoko Ono” moment.

 

Do we really hate women’s bodies that much? Is artistic expression really held ransom to “good taste”? Are we really that ‘sex negative’? Judging from the plethora of comments posted beneath that video, the answer is overwhelmingly, resoundingly “yes”. Gulp.

 

When I saw Casting Off My Womb – photos of it, news articles, eventually the video that triggered the flurry of outrage – I was gob-smacked. I felt really proud to be a woman, to be represented in such a way. I thought Casey was heroic. The work tickled me pink.

 

So when I found her one day, in Berlin, sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, I told her so. Then I signed her up for a chat – and a photo shoot in the city’s free-est space: Tempelhofer Feld, an airport confiscated from fascists and returned to ‘the people’. It smacked of poetic justice.

 

There she was – the woman who’d spent an entire month quietly sitting knitting in a gallery! The artist who’d dared to weave an infinite woolen ‘scarf’ from the depths of her vulva! The craftivist who’d gracefully endured one of the most prodigious internet controversies in recent history!

 

By all accounts, Casey’s experience was truly a “psychological endurance performance artwork” – one that only someone with a wee bit of a superpower could endure…


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Field day: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: Casey Jenkins: “activist, craftivist, rabble-rouser”… Do you recall the first time you were ever creative?

 

Casey Jenkins: I have done a lot of my creating as part of groups and posses and that probably stems back to my childhood; I was big into secret societies as a kid. I really wanted to be a spy and remember poring over a lip-reading book in the local library after school, thinking I could kind of make it my super-power…

 

My sister and cousin and I formed our own posse around that time called ‘Cool Dudes Club’ and wrote each-other letters in code, mainly plotting important things like midnight feasts.

 

CF: And the first time you were ever “crafty”?

 

CJ: I designed a nappy for my baby brother using cottonwool, gladwrap and litmus paper I’d nicked from science class. It would change colour when he pissed so you didn’t have to stick your hand in to check.

 

I think someone manufactures something similar now.

 

CF: Where did your love for ‘making’ come from do you think? Did you have any particular influences or mentors in your life who helped form your sensibility?

 

CJ: Maybe I’d say I’m driven to express, rather than “make”? I’m not sure if there should be a distinction there?

 

“Making” to me seems to imply the creation of tangible things whereas I feel I’m more driven to try to articulate ideas. I do love wielding tools and the satisfaction of solid creations, but much of what I create is ephemeral.

 

My desire to express myself comes from indignation and a desire to chuck a spanner in the works of the Patriarchy which only gives voice to rich old white men or those who champion their plight.

 

Particular influences were a domineering father and a student exchange with Rotary, the ultimate boys club. But the world abounds with bigots who inspire me to action.

 

Some of my artistic heroes and inspirations include LA based sculptor Charles Ray; Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguro; country singer Dolly Parton; Russian all-women punk group Pussy Riot, and Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs.

 

CF: What do you love about making art?

 

CJ: It gives me clarity, it focuses chaos and despair and channels them into a path of transformation.

 

CF: And craft?

 

CJ: The rhythmic physicality of it is grounding and satisfying. I love the quiet sense of camaraderie and generosity in craft communities.

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Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: I first discovered your work and “craftivism” via Anna Brownfield’s* documentary Making It Handmade, where you were interviewed as part of the Craft Cartel, a collective that uses craft to demonstrate against discrimination. Would you tell us a little about the Craft Cartel, why it was set up, what you made, and some of the ‘actions’ you did?

 

CJ: I co-founded Craft Cartel in 2007 with Rayna Fahey, who runs Radical Cross Stitch Posse. We were interested in people making craft on political and activist themes but there was nowhere for them to display their work – too rough-hewn and humble for galleries and not commercial enough for craft markets.

 

Most craft markets charge a lot of money to have a small table space and unless you’re making masses of cutesy mainstream stuff it’s not affordable – so we set up our own dirt-cheap market just for radical craft in a city bar and called it Craft Cartel.

 

We later also had pop-up street markets called ‘Flock n’ Flogs’ by-passing council regulations and just keeping an eye out for cops and suits.

 

Mainly though we wanted to move away from the connection between craft and commerce altogether so we started doing street-art actions, a podcast and produced a series of group activism events called ‘Trashbag Rehab’.

 

We taught a basic craft technique to a bunch of people in a pub and together creating an activism project such as making crocheted explosives to protest the proposed pulp mill in Tasmania.

 

Craft Cartel is more of a ‘sleeper cell’ now. It comes out of hibernation for important events, such as before the 2013 election that saw conservative nitwit Abbott take power. I organised a national protest banner action called “Knit Your Revolt”.

 

Over a hundred knitters from around the country contributed pieces [to it].

 

CF: Do you have a particular philosophy around your work? What motivates you? And what kind of conversations are you interested in having with the public?

 

CJ: I’m seeking honesty, transparency and equity. I feel hypocrisy, duplicity and shame are at the root of most of the systems and behaviours that stymie us, domestically, politically, locally and globally.

 

I’d love to have well measured calm and thoughtful conversations with others without needing to censor or hide myself. You can only control how you behave in an interaction though so I’ll just keep making art and wait until the world is ready to engage calmly.

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Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Casting Off My Womb has been a bit of a “journey” for you to say the least! How would you describe it, from when you began it in 2013 until now?

 

CJ: The reaction was overwhelming and staggering. Very weird. I felt like I’d gone through the internet worm-hole. I had people approaching me in the street and photographing me when I was out in public and journalists hounding me for a while. It felt quite ruthless.

 

I sort of thought all the negativity in the web comment streams had washed over me but compiling them for my most recent piece, Programmed to Reproduce (a psychological endurance work in which I, in part, recited and absorbed some of the abusive comments directed at me over 35 hours), I realised they’ve made me wary and insecure in some circumstances. And that is how the patriarchy is policed – through relentless shaming and belittling.

 

I realise that I was being used as a sort of example or warning to other artists who present as women not to put their head out or do anything that didn’t accord with common standards of feminine behaviour or they’d cop the same sort of reaction. I have no intention to be used this way and am really enjoying venting by recreating some of the more common web abuse as large-scale knitted banners with a touch of menstrual blood dyed yarn.

 

CF: What was your intention behind Casting Off My Womb?

 

CJ: Casting Off My Womb was an exploration of the dissonance between society’s gendered expectations of individuals, and an individual’s potential and desire. Knitting, the vulva and menstruation are currently inextricably linked to notions of womanhood in the popular imagination, each with strong stigma attached.

“In ways that sometimes seem contradictory to me: it made me feel fragile and strong, wary and determined.”

I am fascinated by how incompatible those stigmas are though they all feed into this mythical idea of what being a woman is: “knitting is for grandmas”, “vulvas are for sex”, “menstruation is for baby-making” – those concepts do not sit together in the current cultural paradigm, and all have elements of embarrassment and shame.

 

Combining these concepts in my work created the disconcerting effect that I think people responded to. We have a strong compulsion to categorise and judge people by gender, with Casting Off My Womb I was hoping to give people pause to consider how illogical and unstable those categories are.

 

As a menstruating person in my mid-thirties, there was a strong expectation and pressure from society that what I should do (and should want to do) with my body and my life, was to bear children.

 

In Casting Off My Womb I created a long knitted passage to mark one full menstrual cycle, and to quiet down the noise and distortion of gendered expectations to consider what I, as an autonomous individual, want to create with my body and my life.

 

CF: Stepping back from it all, I can see, as the creator of Casting Off My Womb, that there has been quite a long ‘arc’ of experience for you over time: from the execution of the work back in 2013, until now, and it still endures… What was your experience like during those first 35 hours: physical, emotional, mentally? I’m intrigued as to what it might be like to go through something like that, and the changing nature of that experience throughout that duration.

 

CJ: Generally (and hopefully!) when I begin a performance work, most of the legwork – the production, staging and logistical aspects – have been completed so I can immerse myself in the process of the piece.

 

Casting Off My Womb was a very slow meditative work and my experience of it was calming. It was a quiet, gentle and rhythmic piece. People who visited the gallery were engaged and respectful, some came and chatted to me while I knitted, so it was quite casual.

 

CF: And the moment it was over? What was that like for you?

 

CJ: I remember feeling satisfied – looking back on it and feeling content that I had created a work that felt strong and complete to me. The SBS2 video didn’t air until a couple of weeks after the performance was over; I’m glad that I had that time to consider and weigh the work on my own [terms] before interweb mobs joined the conversation…

 

CF: And now: where has it moved to for you, given the myriad of responses?

 

CJ: It’s been a fascinating journey: Casting Off My Womb was such a quiet, slow and gentle piece to perform that the mass of web commentary felt loud and discordant with it for some time.

 

Now that I’ve started to address those reactions – with the endurance piece Programmed to Reproduce and by knitting banner replicas of web comments – it seems the responses to my work are becoming more circumspect, which is heartening.

 

CF: As we’ve talked about, you have received a wide array of responses about it, from essays in academic journals to an “online backlash” from hate-trolls.. What are some of the more positive or interesting responses or commentary you received?

 

CJ: I’ve had some really touching emails and personal encounters, and have felt incredibly honoured that some artists have responded by using my piece to create works (paintings, poems, sound pieces) of their own.

Super woman: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Daring greatly: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: And the online bullying: what kind of shape did that take? And how did you (are you) weather/ing that?

 

CJ: It was overwhelming: there were tens of thousands of comments but all expressing similar core sentiments. So I filed them into categories: “crazy”, “attention-seeker”, “not-art”, “she should be shot”, “disgusting”, “I’m gonna knit from my arse” etc.

 

The prevailing wisdom is “don’t read the comments”, but I didn’t want to hide from them. I thought by doing the endurance performance, Programmed To Reproduce and reading and absorbing them for hours I might somehow become immune to them, but actually they really wore me down. By the end I felt sad and depleted.

 

The only counter for it is to seek the company of good, kind people.

 

CF: What fears about women, women’s bodies, feminism (or anything else for that matter!) do you think that kind of one-sided aggressive reaction revealed about our culture and society, especially about women?

 

CJ: Wading through the reams of comments and seeing how predictable they were, how people move en masse reinforcing staid ideas gave me an insight into how cultural norms are perpetuated. I think people are terrified of not being accepted. They are much more likely to make comments, positive or negative that are supported by an authority in the community.

 

Huffington Post have written several ‘articles’ about my work over the past few years – they started off hyperbolic and the comment sections mirrored this, often just parroting the headline verbatim with a few emojis thrown in. Recently their articles have taken a much more positive turn and negative comments have lessened considerably.

 

People just want to be on the winning team and not be ostracized from the crowd, even if it means putting other people down to be there.

 

CF: What kind of censorship occurred around the work?

 

CJ: Lots of news reports added boxes and stars to cover my pubes (that was all that was visible in the video by SBS2) and big NSFW (“not safe for work”) banners. The Vaginal Knitting video now has an 18+ entry requirement – I’m not sure whose decision that was.

 

And I was told “off the record” by an employee, that a city gallery didn’t want to exhibit my work because of the potential controversy…

 

CF: Has the experience changed you as an artist?

 

CJ: Yes, in ways that sometimes seem contradictory to me. It made me feel both fragile and strong, wary and determined.

 

CF: And what happened to the artwork – the giant textile that you created during that month? It looks like a giant scarf…

 

CJ: The length of knitting that I produced during Casting Off My Womb – although it was widely reported as being a scarf – it isn’t one.

 

I can understand why people would believe that it visually alludes to scarves [as] it is about 12 meters long. [But it’s] not intended to be an item of clothing at all. It is a marker of a period of time in my life, that is all – more like a ticker-tape than a scarf.

 

I think part of the reason people jump to the conclusion that it is a scarf is the insistence that “women’s work” must produce something practical, something of service to others – not simply [be] an expression of ideas. However that is what it is: an expression of my ideas: not wearable or of practical use to anyone in any manner.

 

At the moment it’s sitting in an airtight bag in my fridge. I displayed it at the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne earlier this year as part of my Programmed to Reproduce performance. I will show it again in December at the Venice International Performance Art Week for my new piece sMother. And the ABC will be filming a little grab about the work for a program: a little grab about the work for a program they’re making about “art that has caused controversy”…

Pauli hearts Casey. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Pauli hearts Casey. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Finally, please finish this sentence: “You know it’s been a good day when…”

 

CJ: …When you’ve been swimming. It’s hard to not realise how wondrous the world is when you’ve spent part of the day suspended in liquid blue.

 

Huge thanks to Casey Jenkins for the interview and photo fun in the ‘Feld!