Listening for the unspoken

By Andrew Tetzlaff

“Have a great day: successful, whatever that means.” Christoph Dahlhausen gave me this order a few minutes ago—a sentence punctuated with the door swinging shut behind him as he left for a meeting. Christoph is an artist in residence, but not an artist in residence at RMIT—he is an artist in my residence—a houseguest, a friend, a colleague and a mentor.

Art residencies at their best play raucously in . . a space that is defined by the combination of creative perception mixed with creative proposition. When successful, residencies provide the resident and audience alike with an opening through which to see things a bit differently.

Christoph arrived into Melbourne from Germany a little over a week ago to install a collaborative exhibition at the Incinerator Gallery[1]. He’s also here to visit friends and reconnect with all things Melbourne. But why come here at all? What is so compelling? Is there such a profound difference in Australia’s soil composition? Is it the colour of the sunlight in the Southern Hemisphere? What is here—or what is it about here? While it may be friends, responsibilities and projects that lead to returns, I do wonder about those initial visits, especially the ones which begin some form of regular migratory cycle.

I am, at present, reading a collection of Siri Hustvedt’s essays entitled Living, Thinking, Looking[2]. In one of her essays, Hustvedt analyses what it means to look at a work of art. To do so, she discusses a range of issues relating to contemporary art, and on her list of things to talk about is the process of visual perception; she writes that viewers are “not merely passive reflectors of the out-there, but embodied creative seers”.[3] She quotes Andreas Engel and Peter König: “What neuroscience has to explain is not how brains act as world-mirroring devices, but how they serve as ‘vehicles of world-making.' ”[4]

In reading this, I was reminded of an incident the other day involving Christoph. It was a fleeting moment in which he smiled at a pun that I had unintentionally made—a double-meaning that was heard by the listener despite never having been intentionally articulated by the speaker. It seemed to me a particular moment, an instant when the creative process was flipped on its head and embedded in the perception—as opposed to the making—of something. Reflecting on this “creative listening”, I am reminded of the works of Boston-based artist William Flynn, whose multi-year iterative drawings of his studio chair[5] were completely built on such explorative and creative looking. Again, creativity—here, in the example of Flynn, a creativity dressed as drawing—finds its home not in the output and mark-making so much as it is does the input: the paying attention to sensation; the taking notice of the world.

So why am I writing about drawing and perceiving and puns, when the subject of this short text should be ‘the artist residency’? The closest that I seem to have come to the topic thus far is a passing note regarding a German houseguest leaving (which seems the wrong way forward, or at very least, an awkward approach). But I am writing about this issue of attention—this issue of active and creative perception—because, for me, it is at the very core of this discussion. Despite first appearances, I believe there is a palpable and direct connection between residencies and the pun that is heard but not spoken.

If we were to, for a moment, consider the world to be a library of cultural knowledge, then we might see the kind of creativity mentioned above as not only a means of writing new texts but as a way of comprehending existing ones. Further, this comprehension might not only expand our understanding of an external world, it might even have the capacity to expand our understanding an internal one—of ourselves, of our expectations, of our perspectives and of our habits. Art residencies at their best play raucously in this space, a space that is defined by the combination of creative perception mixed with creative proposition. When successful, residencies provide the resident and audience alike with an opening through which to see things a bit differently. For the artist, the residency is often a chance to negotiate an unknown or unexpected situation, or to engage with an uncommon or esoteric resource—such as an art collection, a specialist researcher or a useful piece of equipment. For the audience, residencies offer a potential fresh water source, helping to provide voice, perspective and diversity to the local knowledge ecology. Successful residency engagements seem to be those which provide meaning to both guest and host, opening up discussions, enabling a maturation or evolution of cultural discourse and/or inciting future collaborations and investigations. There are a number of moments that come to mind as I reflect on the past few years of coordinating SITUATE, RMIT University’s artist residency program.

Many of the projects that seem to reliably bear fruit are those that are built upon models of dialogue and reciprocation—on that negotiation between creative listening and speaking. At RMIT we engage a series of reciprocal residency projects: projects which simply articulate as a swapping of artists between two like-minded cultural organisation. The longest running of these partnerships has been with the Lower Austrian Government and AIR Krems[6] which began in 2007. Looking back over the past decade, I see a varied richness to the artworks and exhibitions that were produced during the residencies. In the same breath, I also see the subsequent collaborations and re-engagements, the interesting hybridizations and, perhaps most importantly, the effect these experiences have on the art practices and lives of the artists. And while the former is the cornerstone to the latter, it is—in my mind—the latter that reveals the success of the project.

Looking back over the past decade, I see a varied richness to the artworks and exhibitions that were produced during the residencies. In the same breath, I also see the subsequent collaborations and re-engagements, the interesting hybridizations and, perhaps most importantly, the effect these experiences have on the art practices and lives of the artists. And while the former is the cornerstone. . . it is the latter that reveals the success of the project.

The expected or programmed activities of a residency—the exhibitions and lectures and workshops—are only the tip of the iceberg. As important are the hidden or more-subtle engagements, which often end up being as varied as the art practices themselves. There is Michael Wegerer’s[7] independent return two years after his residency, in which he gave a paper at a printmaking conference[8] and presented a body of work at Anna Pappas Gallery[9]. There is Ines Hochgerner’s[10] “kangaroo schnitzel” dinner party, which was prepared for a collection of staff, students and alumni in collaboration with a Korean curator-in-residence Ihnbum Lee—who happened to be in Melbourne at the same time. There’s Eva-Maria Raab’s[11] projects and friendships, which had both led to[12] and from[13] her residency. And there’s the work of Fanni Futterknecht[14], which found its way into Melbourne’s subconscious only to appear again a year later[15]. There’s Hannah Rosa Oellinger and Manfred Rainer’s (OELLINGER/RAINER)[16] (perhaps) more-perfect holiday around Australia and New Zealand that ironically took place after their Perfect Holiday residency project[17]. And, of course, there are the quieter footprints and trace fingertips that all of these artists left on the people of this city and the University.

But it would seem awkward to discuss the Melbourne-based activities without mention of the range of artistic investigations that happened on the other side of the planet. Every year, in a small medieval town on the Danube, there is an equally dynamic set of projects going on. To select “the best” of these projects would be an impossible task; but that said, I do think there is one which resonates particularly well with this text (even if only on account of its bad wordplay). In 2013, Australian artist Kieran Boland was selected to travel to Krems to develop his proposed project Jestertag[18]. Jestertag is, in essence, a creatively re-imagining of his own fuzzy jet-lagged memory of a stopover into Vienna many years before. Boland started by selecting a set of tourist landmarks and public sites that he visited. These locations—statues, park benches and train platforms—become the barely remembered set for a series of narrative vignettes in which Boland recounts dreamlike stories and faulty recollections to the deaf ears of his preoccupied audiences. By digitally superimposing two timeframes of footage, Boland’s narrator talks to a past already departed—a technological séance with his own historical phantasms. The engagement thus turns a monologue into something of a temporal conversation, a conversation built on a creative approach to self-reflection, ambiguity, reinterpretation and misremembering. While the work is inherently playful, light and even comic in its manner, Jestertag makes motions into deeper waters—into the fiction of memory, the dark realities of modern-day surveillance and the sometimes-social awkwardness of urbanity.

Boland begins Jestertag with a whispered conversation to an infant, his poetic words echoing Hustvedt’s sentiments by alluding to a deeper kind of listening. A phrase which reminds us of the bounty provided to the attentive, the curious and the creative. It seems as fitting a way as any to end—with such a beginning.

There is

Always

So much space

Between

Your lines.

Ahhhhhhhhh...[19]


References

[1] Dahlhausen, C. and Graeve, M. (2017). Tensioned Structures [Exhibition], Incinerator Gallery, Moonee Ponds, VIC.

[2] Hustvedt, S. (2012) "Embodied Visions: What Does It Mean to Look at a Work of Art," in Living, Thinking, Looking. London: Sceptre. (Original Work published 2010).

[3] Ibid., 348.

[4] Engel, A. and König, P. (1994). "Paradigm Shifts in Nuerobiology: Towards a New Theory of Perception", in Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. by R. Casati Barry Smith and G. White. Wein and Leipzig: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 131-138.

[5] Flynn, W. (2004-2007). Armed Chair from Observation to Metaphor [series of charcoal, pastel and crayon drawings on paper].

[6] AIR Krems is a residency space for artists, writers, musicians and architects located in Krems, Lower Austria. For more information see http://www.air-krems.at (last visited 4 April 2017)

[7] RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident 2009

[8] Wegerer, M. (2011, September). "The Matter of Change" as part of the panel discussion "On the Periphery of Things- defining the 'Edges' of contemporary print practice from the North to the South". Presented at the IMPACT 7: Intersections & Counterpoints Conference, Monash University Department of Fine Arts, Caulfield, VIC.

[9] Haylock, B., Lane, B., Koller, C., Berners, S., Kelly, D., Stellmach, N, Wegerer, M., The Sisters Hayes, Consorti, P, MacEwan, S. and Hutson, A. (2011). Project 11 — Paradise... a hell of a place [Exhibition], Anna Pappas Gallery, Prahran, VIC.

[10] RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident 2014

[11] RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident 2012

[12] Criddle, G. and Raab, E.M. (2010). GARDEN//ART//ACTION [Exhibition], The Stirling Gardens, Perth, WA.

[13] including: Raab, E.M. (2012). Kalinka-Cards [Postcard artworks]. Presented in Return to Sender [Exhibition], BLINDSIDE, Melbourne, VIC.; Bakker, J., Burgess, C., Morrison, S., Raab, E.M. (2013). Complex Matter [Exhibition], beam contemporary, Melbourne, VIC.; Raab, E.M. (2013). Silent Matter [Exhibition], Liquid Architecture/School of Art Gallery, Melbourne, VIC.; and Raab, E.M. (2014). Presented in White Night [Festival], Melbourne, VIC.

[14] RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident 2015

[15] in the following: Garcia, C., Thompson, C., Lim, E., Futterknecht, F. and Oosterweghel, M. (2016). Screen as a Room [Exhibition]. The Substation, Newport, VIC; and Futterknecht, F., Kingston, A., Sodell, T., Trenerry, B.(2016). You've got cucumber on your eyes [Exhibition], Gertrude Street Projection Festival/Seventh Gallery, Fitzroy, VIC.

[16] RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident 2016

[17] This was a project which critiqued the very notion of the artist residencies, culminating in the following exhibition: OELLINGER/RAINER. (2016). The Perfect Holiday [Exhibition], PROJECT SPACE, Carlton, VIC.

[18] Boland, K. (2013). Jestertag [Digital video]. Presented in Rahmen der Ausstellung der Kulturpreisträger Niederösterreich [Exhibition], NÖ Dokumentationszentrum für Moderne Kunst, St. Pölten, Lower Austria.

[19[1] Ibid. (As an interesting and pertinent aside, these particular lines actually come from Boland's personal email correspondence with Austrian artist Katrin Hornek regarding dreams. Hornek was the 2011 RMIT SITUATE / AIR Krems Austrian exchange resident.)


Andrew Tetzlaff is a Melbourne-based artist, academic and curator. He is the coordinator of RMIT:ART:INTERSECT (https://www.intersect.rmit.edu.au/)—six creative projects that together form a dynamic program of exhibitions, art residencies, creative laboratories, talks and events. These projects consider and use contemporary art as a means of intersecting with and enriching the University community, as well as the broader local and global ones. Tetzlaff is a graduate of Tufts University (Medford) the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and RMIT University (Melbourne), and he is currently pursing a practice-led PhD at RMIT.