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Artists take aim at canon

Perth artists Gabby Loo and Steven James Finch will be exploring a new approach to the Western canon of art and culture at this weekend’s Disrupted: Festival of Ideas. Entitled “Epistemicide in the Western art canon”, their workshop is about making visible the alienation experienced by people of colour in the face of this cultural monolith. Nina Levy spoke to the pair to find out more.

Gabby Loo and Steven James Finch. Photo: Tasha Faye.

Nina Levy: Tell me about yourselves and your artistic practice.
Steven James Finch: I am an early-career community artist with migrant settler heritage living on stolen lands. I have an ongoing concern about care, culture and ethical art practices in the face of ecological collapse and climate disaster. I recently become interested in decoloniality of the illegal state of Australia and solidarity with First Nations people.

I have edited literary journals, built and lived in nomadic off-grid structures, curated festivals and visual art exhibitions, produced Fringe performances, written and performed poetry, literature and performance art. Throughout I have tried to constantly ask what is the best way of living and caring for each other and for all beings? How can we be good, curious, just and truthful?

Gabby Loo: I am an emerging multidisciplinary artist and community arts facilitator based on the stolen lands of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation. I am a second-generation migrant of Shan and Hakka ancestry.

In my personal arts practice I enjoy visually exploring my intersectional identities and autobiographical histories, of past and future self. I tend to accompany these ideas with fictionalised and surreal elements. I currently explore these ideas through illustration, comics, photography, textile works and small sculptures.

I am a co-director of Paper Mountain, creator of the CaLD & ATSI Creatives of WA online community group and I co-coordinate the ongoing community arts project Belonging with Aisyah Sumito, a local artist and curator. Belonging is a Noongar boodja-based community arts initiative with an aim to provide a safe space for artists to express ideas of self and identity, to make art, and have a voice with a particular focus on platforming Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) youth. We host communal workshops, meet ups and forums.

NL: What has shaped your artistic practices?
SJF: During my degree, when I thought being an author was a relatively straightforward process of releasing books, I developed an interest in the ethics of Soren Kierkegaard. Ethics for me became tied to aesthetics and interrelationality or spirit. I roughly remember Kierkegaard describing the ethical way as watching the face of someone who is perfectly responding to an imperfect but youthful actor on stage. So, for me, initially, creative practice and meaning-making is tied into ideas of being good and living ethically. So, instead of a solitary writer I’ve become committed to helping others express themselves. I have learned from running a magazine with my peers and putting in a lot of volunteer hours; from living off-grid in a nomadic structure in a backyard, hosting dinners about the end of the world; from running an artist run initiative; and from doing all of this while living in economic precarity.

What really helped me get to where I am today is meeting and working with incredible and good people, like Gabby Loo, Amber Boyatzis, Vidya Rajan, Claire Bushby, Alina Tang, Janet Carter and people on the dotdotdash and Paper Mountain team, people from Aunty Mabel’s Zine Distro. This led me to a key moment in 2016 when I was doing a short course with the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Melbourne, when Tania Cañas was a tutor, and spoke of how Western pedagogy and education had led to this widespread epistemicide, the death of the diversity of knowledge. From that moment, I began to take my community arts work more seriously. In speaking with our collaborators from the “Seasons, Histories, Hopes” exhibition at the SLWA, I have learned so much about who I am and what knowledge I can share with my cultures and communities – one of which, from Walter Mignolo and others, is the idea of decolonial aesthetics.

GL: In 2017 I graduated from UWA with a Fine Arts Major. I’ve been a freelance independent artist and community arts facilitator ever since. As an artist of colour I am driven to create change in the Perth arts and foster culturally safe spaces for marginalised identities.

My arts practice was shaped by personal experiences of art as therapy, a means of self-empowerment and self-acceptance. As a gender queer young person of colour, my lived experiences are laden with intersectional discrimination and the battle against harmful effects this has on my well-being. As I move towards my future, with my past as a reminder in my back pocket, I’m always learning how to unpack the internalised harm and decolonising my modes of thinking and foster positive attitude of self-realisation for myself and others.

My lived experiences and learning from peers who have also been through similar experiences are very relevant to the core of my practice, guiding how I work with individuals in communities and build creative communities which value cultural safety and decoloniality. As an artist based on stolen Whadjuk Noongar land, it is my hope that I can support creative spaces that foster intercultural solidarity, amplify the voices of BIPOC folx (Black, Indigenous, and People of colour), and learning the truth about our cultural histories (colonial erasure and Western Euro-centrism sucks big time!).

NL: How did you meet? And how did you come to collaborate?
GL: We met while volunteering at Paper Mountain, an artist-run-initiative and gallery on William Street in Northbridge. One of the first projects we worked on was during KickstART Festival 2017 for WA Youth Week. Steve, who was the Festival Coordinator at the time, asked me to run a community workshop series and exhibition for migrant and refugee background youth, supported by OMI, Propel Youth Arts WA and North Metro TAFE. It was then that the ongoing community arts project Belonging was born.

SJF: I approached Gabby to ask if they wanted to run a series of art workshops for the Office of Multicultural Interests. It was all a bit last minute, and a process that was a bit stressful for Gabby, but they really stepped up. Belonging became a beautiful ongoing project. For the State Library exhibition, I spoke to Gabby as I was applying for the fellowship. Initially we were going to do two separate individual projects, but as we spoke together and organised community gatherings, we realised that the project needed a many-voices approach to the idea of Asian identity in WA, and so it became a group project we co-facilitated.

NL: You recently co-curated and presented Seasons, Histories, Hopes at the State Library of WA, a group exhibition about Asian migrant history in WA that is the culmination of the year-long research project Imagined Migrant Future. In the exhibition catalogue you talk about how the project evolved over the year. Can you talk us through that process of evolution, and what the project uncovered for you?
GL: The Western framework of archives, libraries and museums use the white gaze to constrict the living cultural practices and everyday objects of people into palatable stereotypes and racist imaginaries.

SJF: We entered the State Library space knowing this, but also assuming that people who work in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) Sector would be aware. What we found were State Library materials, signage, and processes that seemed unaware of the inherited racist structures they were replicating. We also experienced racism from some staff members; people who would tell us our research project was misguided or unimportant in focusing on Asian migration, or who would assume that we did not belong in the staff areas or that we must be cleaners. Our fellowship itself was named after James Sykes Battye, chief librarian of the State Library, who in his Cyclopedia of Western Australia only mentions Chinese people once, and that is in reference to there being a State budget surplus and a discussion by the government on acquiring cheap labour to further increase the surplus. I wish to mention that there were also staff members who were helpful and professional, that this is not about a series of isolated incidents, but about how ongoing racist structures are perpetuated by administrative organisations.

GL: Despite these disheartening experiences there was always a strong feeling of hope when we met with our exhibiting artists. Sitting together and discussing with other non-white people our struggles with racism, both external and internal, our specific cultural knowledge and histories, and being heard as humans rather than as racialised identities was incredibly empowering. We have documented a lot of our experiences and our histories in  the documentary Imagined Migrant Futures by Michelle Vuaillat and our exhibition catalogue.

NL: And you will be presenting a workshop this month as part of the Disrupted Festival of Ideas: Epistemicide in the Western Art Canon. Firstly, for those who don’t know, what is epistemicide?
SJF: Epistemicide is the colonial act of killing knowledges. It is a term used by Boaventura De Sousa Santos in the book Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide to describe how colonial powers destroy language, ancestral ties, memories and culture of subordinated groups. We’ve found this term useful in understanding current monologic expressions of culture. As local artists we’ve found that there is a violent process of meaning-making predicated on erasing and writing over the lived cultural truths of First Nations people and People of Colour that is, unfortunately, quite prevalent today, even from well-meaning individuals. And so we feel this is a much needed conversation to be had with our community.

NL: And what will the workshop involve?
SJF & GL: During the workshop we will be looking at the following ideas:

  • Unpacking the constructions of truth, particularly as defined by Western Euro-centric efforts at universal truths through the erasure of cultures, languages and diversity.
  • Specific histories that uncover cultural bias and theft, particularly during the Enlightenment and Modernity.
  • Identifying and discussing international/local decolonial art histories and repatriation efforts.
  • The effects of representation on lived and racialised bodies.
  • Reference to other efforts in decolonial thought and activism.
  • Fun!

NL: Who do you hope to see at the workshop? 
GL: We hope to meet an array of people who are art admirers, artists and art workers. They do not need to have any training/experience. However, we hope those with a keen interest in truth-telling will attend and learn how our histories are documented and shaped through art.

SJF: Anyone that has ever, like me, been seduced into liking Western culture and the Western art canon, and as a result have gone through periods of real self-doubt and self-hate and shame and racial dysphoria. This space is for you. These are the truths that have always been there. Your lived experience, your cultures, your childhood: they are all as valuable and deserving as any of this.

Disrupted: Festival of Ideas takes place at the State Library of Western Australia on July 27 and 28. It is a free event. 

“Epistemicide in the Western art canon” is fully booked but you can join the waitlist here.


Pictured top: Gabby Loo. Photo: Giselle Natassia Woodley.

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Audience members applauding
Calendar, Festivals, July 19, Lectures and Talks

Disrupted: Festival of Ideas

27 & 28 July @ State Library of WA ·
Presented by State Library of WA ·

The truth. Can it be subjective? Manipulated? Changed by opinion? And will it really set you free? Libraries throughout history have played a significant role as the trusted keepers of history, truth and information. The State Library of Western Australia’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas 2019 takes on the truth, in all its forms.

Meet scientists, journalists, writers, and professionals dedicated to truths that others deny as inconvenient. Discover how to harness your own truth, better understand your brain and spot  fake news. Learn the fascinating history behind mistruths, lies, and other forms of manipulation and how your library can be a powerful weapon in the fight against truth distortion, bias and agenda.

All events are FREE to the general public with no registration required with the exception of  some workshops and activities.

More info:

Pictured: Festival of Disrupted Ideas, credit: Jessica Wyld


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Disrupted Festival of Ideas
Calendar, Exhibitions, Festivals, July 18, Lectures and Talks, Performing arts, Visual arts

Disrupted Festival of Ideas 2018

28 – 29 July 2018 @ the State Library of Western Australia ·
Presented by: The State Library of Western Australia ·

As we become more embedded in the 21st century, technology has begun to move faster than we can keep up with. Technological advancements created for the military and space exploration are now accessible to everyone and infiltrate our daily lives.

How do we navigate this ever-changing world? Have we forgotten ethics or are we now better human beings?
How does technology impact the way we communicate, form relationships or develop as a society?

The 2018 Disrupted Festival of Ideas considers technology in its different forms, from the simple to the complex, gathering experts from around the country to discuss the state of the world through panels, conversations and keynotes.

More info: https://disrupted.slwa.wa.gov.au/

Photo by Jessica Wyld

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JR Brennan
Features, Lectures and Talks, Music, News, Performing arts, Theatre

The crossover between art and crime

From artist to parole officer to criminal justice activist, JR Brennan is an independent performance and music maker who’s not afraid to take risks. This fascinating Australian artist is a panellist at this year’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas, for the topic Taking Art out of the Gallery. Brennan has a busy schedule but Nina Levy managed to pin him down for a Q&A ahead of his visit to Perth.

Nina Levy: Your work is characterised by diversity, weaving in and out of the arts and in and out of different artistic disciplines. Tell us about the path your career has taken…
JR Brennan: I graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts’ School of Drama (Acting) in 2000 and have been making performance and music independently since then, in Australia and overseas. In 2007 I returned to Australia from Berlin, where I had been making music as Theatre of Disco, and I took on a job as a parole officer in Sydney. At the time I was pretty jack of the artistic environments I was working in and I jumped at the opportunity of working in community corrections. With the exception of some pretty tedious training, there was an intensity and depth to the work that had been lacking in my artistic experience. The work had purpose and there were real outcomes as a result of what I did or didn’t do. For three years I worked as a parole officer in Long Bay Prison, Sydney, assessing men for release from prison and reporting to the State Parole Authority.

Three years into my job working in Long Bay, I received The Keith and Elizabeth Travelling Fellowship and so I quit and went overseas to work and train with some of my art heroes. This included Brasilian theatre company Teatro De Vertigem, Wooster Group in New York and choreographer Deborah Hay. In August 2010 I attended a ten-day workshop with renowned avant-garde Polish theatre company Gardzienice, under director Włodzimierz Staniewski. This guy, along with his team of extraordinary actors, is one of the wildest and most brilliant directors alive. I was blown away. The aesthetic was very different from what I had been making but they were the most impressive artists I had ever come across; disciplined, capable artists working as a team to make soaring, epic performance works, with incredible live music woven throughout. The first time I watched one of their performances I didn’t know what had hit me. It was thrilling.

A month later I was invited to join the company as core member and instructor. I became the only non-Polish person in the core company. The other actors had all been with the company at least 10 years, the eldest for 35 years. For the next three years I lived and worked with the company in their compound in a small village near the Ukraine border, acting in their repertoire of performances and working on developing new works. In 2011 was invited by Staniewski to be the first outsider to direct for the company in its 35-year history. I created a large scale work The Mark of Cain, involving a cast of 40 actors, musicians and singers, which was my directing debut on a European stage.

In 2014 left Gardzienice and returned to Australia. Since then I have focused on making artistic work around criminal justice: performance, workshops, research and film. In my role as board member of JusTas, an organisation based in Hobart (where I now live), I also advocate for incarcerated people and reforms, promoting justice, best practice and valuable outcomes for returning citizens and the community.

NL: How do these various experiences – as an artist, a parole officer and criminal justice activist – influence one another?
JRB: One of the most interesting areas of cross over is risk.

As a parole officer, part of the job was to assess and manage risk, with an eye towards community safety. As an artist, one of my main tasks has been to cultivate and tend risk within my work. The conceptual cross over between art and crime is compelling: ideas of transgression and consequence vary dramatically between these two worlds and the assumptions we hold around each of them can inform new ways of perceiving our own self-imposed limits and potential for transformation. So it’s important to understand our history of thinking around crime and punishment. It informs our ability to dismantle the influence of moral absolutism.

Understanding crime and punishment in society is like a mirror. It shows us how we see ourselves and each other. How we are prepared to treat those who transgress societies rules is a powerful indicator of how we see ourselves and what state our communities are in. By challenging existing models of criminal justice and understanding their roots, we become better artists and communities.

In my most recent performance work The Chat, I collaborated with ex-offenders as performers and consultants. We had a set of aims that were spread across the artistic and the social. At times these aims were at odds, which posed some challenges for us in making sure each of these priorities were balanced: for example, experimental performance invites a level of risk that some might consider problematic when working with ex-offenders. We instinctively approached these challenges with a great deal of humour and care, two factors that have embedded themselves as key aspects of our developing methodology.

NL: Tell me more about the work you make…
JRB: Since 2014 I have worked on The Chat. It has been presented at Arts House, Melbourne and La Boîte in Brisbane and is being presented at a main Australian festival in 2019. It’s a big project that took years to develop with a number of streams to it. Its research arm, which I have been presenting at criminology conferences, will be published in a book co-authored by Dr Anna Eriksson from Monash University and collaborating artists, later this year.

Making theatre takes a lot of time and effort so I usually make a theatre work every three to five years and in between I am making music. As composer and producer I move freely between electronic, death metal and various forms of classical and folk music. At the moment I am focusing on a new project called Axon Breeze which had its first outing at MONA FOMA this year. It’s a hybrid death metal project with gamelan prodigy Willyday Onamlay Muslim, from Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

I have recently completed an experimental documentary that was five years in the making. It was made in partnership with Białołęka Prison in Poland, a large detention centre on the outskirts of Warsaw. It’s a three-channel video work with an original operatic score, which I co-wrote with my Polish collaborator, Szczepan Pospiszalski. The work be shown inside and outside the walls of prisons in Australia and Poland and also, hopefully, at my favourite music festival Sacrum Profranum in Poland next year, if all goes to plan.

NL: You’re speaking on the panel for Taking Art out of the Gallery at the Disrupted Festival… what draws you to that topic?
JRB: There is both a threat and promise embedded in the image that this theme conjures up. There is threat to both artist and institution depending on who’s doing the “taking”, and there is also the promise of transforming the relevance and access of our art works to a broader and more diverse audience. It holds the promise of a rich ecosystem of bio-artistic diversity, one that that can weather the sort of set backs to funding and appreciation that we have seen in recent years, and survive due to having taken root in too many and too varied locations and contexts. I like that image. Perhaps by expanding our understanding of art we would see that this is already the case. Our culture also holds our artistic expressions, and the survival and flourishing of Aboriginal cultures, despite everything, shows us that this is the case.

I have just begun work on a new Virtual Reality project around suicide prevention for Big Anxiety Festival in 2019. I’m looking forward to applying some pressure to my thinking around the project and learning a thing or two from the excellent other panelists who work in the field.

NL: You’re also the key collaborator on Artefact, with Aphids, at Disrupted. Tell us about that project and your role in it…
JRB: Artefact is a film and performance project led by my partner in crime and art and life, Willoh S Weiland. Willoh won the illustrious Anti International Prize for Live Art in 2015 and was invited back to make a new work for the Anti Festival. We spent six months in Finland making the work, which explores the death of obsolete technology. It’s a big sprawling art film. There are epic moments of nonsense mixed with some real depth of feeling and beauty.

As well as building the performance with Willoh, which we performed in a church in Northern Finland, I composed the music. It’s a work for church choir, organ and death metal choir which I wrote while living on an island of Helsinki. The piece is a deconstruction of the original Nokia ringtone, which is a fragment of a guitar work by Francisco Tárrega. It’s showing on the Perth Cultural Screen at 5:15pm on July 28. Bring your phone because it’s an interactive film which encourages you to keep your phone on and sends you text throughout the screening.

NL: What’s your favourite piece of playground equipment?
JRB: The merry-go-round.

Big spinning platform with steel bars around the edge. You don’t see them much these days – probably because they are properly scary. It uses rotary motion to spin around and can clock some serious G force. I’ve seen kids fly off this thing hard. It actually makes me  feel horrible when it gets speed up but I just love how this wild whirling thing was considered suitable for kids.

The “Taking Art out of the Gallery” panel discussion takes place Saturday 28 July at 2.15pm, in the State Library of WA.

Artefact screens on Saturday 28 July at 5.15pm, on the Perth Cultural Centre screen.

All Disrupted Festival events are free. 

Pictured top is JR Brennan.

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