Week One, What Is A School?
I had read a couple of essays by Paul O’Neill about curatorial practice generally, but his scholarly output didn’t quite prepare me for the actuality of him as-curator-as-artist-as-producer. One essay in particular is often cited, ‘The Curatorial Turn: from Practice to Discourse’, which accounts for the way that since 1989 or so, exhibitions emerged forcibly as discursive events, with the curator in an authorial and creative position: curator as producer, one might say. This essay gives some context to O’Neill’s own practice as artist-curator.
The first sign of O’Neill’s current project entitled Our Day Will Come was the arrival of a shabby workman’s caravan, deposited in the courtyard outside the School of Art. Passers-by witnessed its makeover. Now it’s resplendent in a coat of rather ghastly magenta paint, emblazoned with a logo, flanked by a wooden deck supporting a desk and cloaked by a shade cloth sail. Last week this little shelter served as an annex or outpost of the School of Art: a provisional school. There, we congregated for the first day of the Free School, to discuss the topic question, ‘What is a School?’
The inaugural conversation was a bit mad and frankly, I found it rather excruciating, and I suspect some others did, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I spent some time reflecting on the fact that since I wasn’t a teacher in the situation, I had no special sway over the discussion, and this caused me some discomfort. My secret lack of support for free speech caused me more discomfort still. Most of my attention, however, was fixed upon the demeanor of the two guests, Paul and the first of his string of visitors, Mick Wilson. There was something rather statesmanlike about their bearing. They were diplomatic and poised, engaged but studiously neutral and non-interventionist. At first they were very sparing with the brakes and participants expressed themselves unchecked. After lunch though, the contingent was a smaller, Paul steered the agenda rather more tightly and sketched the desired outcomes for his project which are, roughly, to pose a question per week (‘What is a School?’ For last week; for this week, ‘What is Remoteness?’); to run a series of discussions, a dinner and smaller conversations on the topic question, and to produce a ‘zine by the Friday of each week. The ‘zine, as it turned out, is a ripper.
I don’t really know what a school is. I’m wondering whether there is such a condition as remoteness. Moreover, I am in some doubt about what constitutes a project. I’m quite pleased with these results.
Week Two, What Is Remoteness?
Momentum and volubility increased considerably in week two. On Tuesday night at the second free school dinner, we went a bit ‘birko’. Grant Dale’s Barthesian approach to Lady Gaga’s Judas drove us to the edge of reason. Some of the same people were brought to their senses when Annie Fletcher gave a sharp, illuminating talk on Thursday, about the Vann Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, where she is curator of exhibitions. She talked about that institution, and a little about her independent curatorial practice. Annie has also instigated a group performance, but I’m afraid I’m not abreast of the way it is developing.
Predictably and sadly, now that things are in full swing I feel I am missing out on some of the action of Our Day Will Come. It pains me, but I can’t give up my day job, and the project is like the Court of King Caractacus. That’s a reference I tried on Paul O’Neill. I wasn’t being deliberately provincial; it was my unwitting rustic style. He didn’t get it. If you are reading this on your smart phone in your yurt in Kazakhstan on the steppes, in keeping with the free school and zine topic you could Google it. I did. Turns out it’s a Rolf Harris song.
Closer to the source, I caught a bit of one of Garrett Phelan’s live performance works on edge radio. A woman’s voice held forth on the virtues of common sense, holding the airwaves in tension by her own conviction. It was exhilarating to hear it broadcast live. Implausibly, dizzyingly, like a Philippe Petit high wire act, she made step after step by just keeping on talking and her proclamations made remarkable sense.
Mick Wilson gave the Art Forum at the School of Art on Friday. It was an historic event: he said he hadn’t talked about his own practice for thirteen years. It was my privilege to introduce him, but I had no idea what was in store. More vertigo. It was deadly serious and ribald, pedagogically robust and desperately funny. I haven’t seen enough of the slide show work of 2000, Trains Made Mary Vague.
That Friday night, some of us went out drinking until late. I got another handle on Remoteness (read: backwater) from witnessing the 1980s cover band at the New Sydney Hotel. The following morning my best brown frock and cardigan smelt very unpleasantly of stale cigarette smoke, and there were teeth marks in my good red lipstick. I was very vague indeed; it had been a rigorous week.
Week Three, What is Autonomy?
I am approaching comatose. It’s the last week of the teaching semester. In addition to my workload, trying to participate in Iteration: Again and particularly Our Day Will Come is making me feel like a contestant in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s midnight and, like a good many of my own students, here I am, embarking on a one-draft-wonder. It’s a recipe for vacuity but consoling to think that according to the rules of the game, this particular item might be consigned to the trash and replaced by something more considered.
The topic for the week was What is Autonomy? a question embedded in a preexisting and ongoing project that Annie Fletcher, last week’s visitor, is involved in. Annie flew to be here from the Netherlands for a mere four or five days and then embarked on her return journey after facilitating the Monday free school discussion. Her travel possibly took more time than her stay. I sat at the caravan with a pile of essays to mark, partly participating. Conversations slid from the autonomy of the work of art, to the role of the artist, and spiraled out to broader issues. Later Jeff Malpas ran a philosophy café session in the Art School caf.
At the Tuesday free school dinner we had a screening of Them, made in 2007 by Artur Zmijewski, a work shown at Documenta 12 and often referred to as an influential investigation of difference. It was a privilege to see it. The premise of the ‘experiment’, set in Poland, was that four teams were invited to create large, emblematic depictions of their values on paper banners. The teams were comprised of older Catholic women, young socialists, a right wing Polish nationalist youth group, and what might be a Jewish youth group (the Hebrew word for Poland emblazoned their insignia). The ‘game’ consisted of the teams being invited to add or subtract from each other’s banners. Each team battled to reinstate their original expression, and erase or deface that of the others. Ultimately there was no yielding or renegotiation of any symbolism. Some players chose to abandon proceedings when tensions escalated. Participants emerged as lodged in a shallow ideology, unable to renegotiate or reimagine their symbolism.
At the zine launch, over a beer, I heard from colleagues that Mick Wilson had addressed a group of third year students. None of them had heard of Broadsheet. Perhaps it takes an outsider to expose such a level of deficiency and docility.
Week Four, What is Usefulness?
With a finality that is not shared by the patch of sawdust left by a departed circus, the resonating empty space in the forecourt of the Art School signals that the Our Day Will Come caravan has left town.
Running the question, What is Usefulness? The last week was ostensibly therapeutic in focus. A student remarked that the O.D.W.C. caravan was similar to that which used to her visit her country school, bringing either the school dentist or the sex educationalist. Sighting the conveyance, you didn’t know whose intervention you were about to receive. The final week’s O.D.W.C iteration upped the carnavalesque nature of the four–week enterprise and was marked by much hilarity, but also galvanisation.
With Rhona Byrne, whose focus was Laughter, Jem Noble arrived to pursue the topic of Self-Improvement. Rhona ran a workshop with a laughter therapist; I missed the procession of Rhona’s whopping black balloon cloud, which was carried aloft through the streets by a band of jovialists. One of Jem’s priceless contributions was a performance that mashed up various discourses of self-improvement in a stream of verbiage that merged the dictates of an aerobics instructor with pellets of Eastern philosophy, relaxation therapy and pop psychology. It was magic.
The finale was Death of a Discourse Dancer, held at Halo nightclub in the Hobart Mall, off the social map of most, if not all, of those involved in Iteration: Again. Part of the gambit of the night was to infiltrate an existing nightclub and interact with the usual clientele. Some O.D.W.C. participants took part in a programme that obliged them to give a short lecture and take a turn at DJ-ing. The mix of lectures and amateur DJ-ing, as well as the fact that we were mingling with someone’s hen night, should have been bacchanalian. Interestingly it fell rather flat (though apparently the vibe picked up long after I had retired).
The circus is perennial, but – perhaps to the wistful tune of ‘Send In the Clowns’, we are left to ponder what has been and gone, in four cycles, just the once.
Our Day Will Come caused a ruction that was revivifying and joyous. It was a reminder to spend time thinking from first principles and to consider basic human values about mutuality and respecting difference. Over the last week some of the participants pondered continuing some aspects of the project, like the free school dinners. These, however, could not be possible without the facilitation of strangers. In his closing address to the Iteration: Again Symposium, Mick Wilson drew together ideas about ephemerality and hospitality, pointing to the host–guest relationship as transient by its nature. A guest promotes temporary adaptive extensions to habitual behaviours of the host. Such accommodations are sustainable only in the short term. It’s their very precariousness, spontaneity and unsustainability that are the poetry and value of temporary social relations.
Maria Kunda, 2011