Making art in uncertain times

21 May 2020

Jen Jamieson is an artist whose participatory works are about human connection. In this Q&A with Nina Levy, Jamieson describes the ways in which social distancing has impacted on her artistic practice, her work in youth mental health and her life in general.

Lying on my back next to Jen Jamieson, as we gaze at the sky and contemplate oxytocin, I feel perfectly content. This is Let’s Make Love, one of five Jamieson works I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to experience. Whether one-on-one or small group-based, what makes Jamieson’s works so special is her ability to forge a connection with audience members.

How does someone like Jamieson, who describes herself as “an artist who makes work that often involves intimacy and trust with audiences”, navigate social distancing? She has generously shared her experiences of the COVID-19 restrictions with Seesaw readers.

This Q&A is part of a series that profiles West Australian artists and arts workers, and reveals how they are working during these challenging times.

A woman having a shower outside. She is wearing black bathers and washing her hair. She is smiling and looks joyful.
Jen Jamieson in her work ‘How to Have a 3 Minute Shower’ at the Museum of Water, as part of Perth Festival 2018.

Nina Levy: What does a “normal” day look like for you?
Jen Jamieson:
A normal day before COVID-19 was me working a kind of nine to five job Monday – Friday, well four days a week actually and having a day of kind of just pottering during the week.

NL: And what does your average day look like now, in the time of Coronavirus restrictions?
JJ: For the last four and a half weeks I’ve been working from home and that’s been pretty challenging actually because I’m naturally quite distractible, and I procrastinate quite easily and I’m probably a little bit lazy. I’ve been finding that my routine has gone a bit haywire. I work in youth mental health and for my work, I mainly I run groups – it’s been tricky converting all these groups for young people to online.

I live by myself and that is probably what I’m finding most challenging because I relied on social interaction through work and also friends and the arts – going out to see shows, exhibitions and talking to people in person. My average day now is a bit lazy, it’s quiet, and at times lonely. I feel like my brain has become compost so it’s a bit mucky and sludgy and a bit rotten but actually has really good nutrients and could be really useful, and even valuable, if used correctly.

NL: What were your plans for 2020 before the COVID-19 shutdowns?
Before the COVID-19 shutdowns I had so many plans, the year was really full. I’ve got a big show commissioned by PICA for later in year, and I had initially planned to go to Melbourne to work with Mish Grigor in a dramaturgical relationship, in April, which of course didn’t happen.

Two women, one sitting at a table, pen in hand, the other slightly squatting to talk to her,
Jen Jamieson and participant in ‘This is Not Personal’

The way I make work is organic, but I really need to be in the space that it will be installed or presented in. I need to kind of inhabit the space to generate ideas. So whilst I’ve technically had months to work on this performance, it’s all kind of been trapped up in my head and until I’m actually in a space I don’t know what I’m going to do.

In theory, a season of my work This is Not Personal [the pilot of which premiered at Fringe World earlier this year] is still going to go ahead in October/November but we don’t know yet in what capacity it can go ahead. I’m finding it really hard to plan or even just to think about the work, not just because I don’t know what the audience restrictions will be but because I don’t know how long I will actually have in a studio to work on it.

April was going to be a busy time. As well as going to Melbourne, I was also commissioned by the Sydney Opera House to undertake a digital mentorship – but this wasn’t possible because part of the commission was me going to Sydney. I was also going to go to Fairbridge Festival just to hang out with trees and music. I also had two small camping trips planned!

I don’t want to think about July – because I’ve been saving so that I could travel to interstate festivals as well as Broome/Exmouth. I was planning to go to Dark Mofo in Hobart then go camping up North in the heat. Here in Perth I had a music video event named Blind Date – in which I match film-makers with musicians, and a music video is created – that I curate and run at Revelation Film Festival. [Although Blind Date will not take place, the Revelation Film Festival will still take place online. The physical festival has been postponed until September/October 2020. – Ed. ].

Jen Jamieson and audience member in ‘Let’s Make Love’ at Liveworks (Sydney) in 2017. Photo: supplied by artist

I’d also been saving up so I could go to Sydney later in the year and be in the audience at Liveworks festival. Ridiculous. And what have I been doing with my savings? Eating them – fancy foods – oh dear.


But really, a huge part of my plans was to actually create This is Not Personal and collaborate with people in person, not conceptually or via email. I’m trying not to over-stress that I haven’t been able to do that because I wanted to have a long period of development to create a really lovely work – but haven’t been able to meet with people, or access the studio space et cetera.

NL Are there any silver linings to the COVID-19 restrictions?
Hmmmm… silver linings… crikey – there have been some really incredible reworkings of festivals/shows/events haven’t there? Even that incredible play reading by The Last Great Hunt. There’s a live art festival, the Fusebox Festival, which is kind of an experimental arts festival from Texas, that I’d never normally get to go to. I’ve looked at it from afar and dreamt of being able to go, and last month I did get to go, by YouTube, and it was a really inspiring reworking of the whole festival.

I’ve definitely mostly enjoyed working from home – having lunchtime showers rather than early morning ones. I’m loving not commuting to Joondalup, loving cooking lunch rather than taking it in a little tub or eating crappy takeaway, loving sitting in my little courtyard in the sun for a work break.

I think a huge silver lining for me is being a part of the AAAC19 Facebook group (Australian Arts Amidst COVID-19). As you know, the arts have been decimated by the COVID shutdowns, but this Facebook group (started by WA artist Alex Desebrock late one Sunday night) has now grown to over 17,600 members! I’m one of about 20 moderators and the group is phenomenal; it can be quite overwhelming and intense at times, but we’ve just formed this incredible advocacy group for independent artists after this really shitty blow.

Pictured top: Jen Jamieson’s ‘Let’s Make Love’ at Proximity Festival in 2017. Jen Jamieson is left. Photo: PAVLOVA

Jen Jamieson will be presenting This is Not Personal at PICA later this year. Dates have not been confirmed yet, so please keep your eye on the PICA website for more info. In the meantime you can read Nina Levy’s review of This is Not Personal’s Fringe World season at PICA earlier this year.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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