A three week residency in February 2017 marked the first public project of artist collective While the Hour. The collective is multidisciplinary, creating artworks and forming creative practices around the idea of ‘deep time’ and ‘chronosophy’ (the philosophical study of time).
During their time on site, activities of the collective included: two ‘Restivals’, each designed as a “drop-in festival of collective resting” with live music and a lineup of speakers talking about deep time, reading creative works, or reflecting on creative practice; ran durational writing and drawing workshops, built sculptures and made installations around site, including a kinetic sail that floated around the concrete slab, a wearable chain linked to the earth, and carvings in chunks of bluestone left on ledges and in pots around site. They made soft furniture, banners, and written reflections. The group also held several meetings to define and redefine their practice and their underlying principles.
Being a new entity, the program and infrastructure of Testing Grounds afforded While the Hour’s membership time and space to refine and reflect on the core principles and assumptions the collective formed around, while also providing prompts in the form of curatorial feedback and cross-pollination with the other events and projects happening on site. Cross-pollination of ideas – and the new directions of thinking and creative practice – that came out of encounters with other artists, practitioners, and the general public was a notable feature of this residency.
In particular, While the Hour members spent significant time in the White Box engaging with Community Reading Room. The CRR project, lead by Torika Bolatagici with reader-in-residence Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe, featured a library of books by and about First Nations artists, and included several talks and performances about First Nations cultures. Some of the key concepts explored in the CRR project – notions of time in different First Nations cultures, and practices of recording histories, and the battle for maintaining cultural distinctness in a globalised world – clearly linked back to the concerns of the While the Hour group. Both Torika and Stéphanie were invited to speak about their work and experience of their own project at the second ‘Restival’ hosted on the final Saturday of While the Hour’s residency.
Collective member Susannah Jo Foster particularly responded to CRR, writing on the While the Hour blog, “I’ve also spent some time in the Decolonised Reading Room, consuming texts by PoC. So much of the stuff available is focused on African Americans. They have defined the contemporary narrative, which has been invaluable… but for my sake I wish that there was some more punchy contemporary writing about Polynesians, or mixed race people.” The texts held in the Reading Room may have left Susannah wanting more, but that project undoubtedly catalysed new kinds of thinking about her own place in the world and how that gets expressed through her art.
Serendipitous meetings also contributed to the residency on a more logistical level. Collective member Cass Smith had stitched four hammocks to sling from the superstructure for the Restival event, but had no experience in rigging. The afternoon Cass was testing out different knots learned from books and YouTube videos, the entire Arts Centre technician team arrived at Testing Grounds for a BBQ and drink after an all-day training session. Seeing Cass out the front of the Clear Box tying and untying different kinds of knot, the chief rigger and two other technicians approached her and offered advice on the best approach. The conversation lasted around half an hour, peppered with bursts of laughter. Cass followed their advice and solved her rigging questions.
Interview with Cass Smith
Cass Smith: The infrastructure worked for us functionally to hang up hammocks, and to make a big inviting festival space when we were able to open up the big swinging doors of the Clear Box. It worked for us as a blank, minimal structure that we could add – something functional we could add our stuff to and manipulate.
It didn’t work for us in temperature – there wasn’t quite enough shade, and being in the Clear Box it had a hotbox effect when we were staying there throughout the day.
Testing Grounds: And exploring ideas of time, did that put you into a different rhythm or was that just a problem?
CS: Probably just a problem, because it didn’t affect our circadian rhythms, it just made us want to sleep because we were too hot.
TG: Because if you can’t function as a person you can’t function as an artist… So that’s what the experience of working on this site was like, what about being emerging artists working in the arts precinct? Was that of significance to you?
CS: I think it was, because one of the themes of our whole residency was deep time – and contextually, we were also working as a part of the national Sustainable Living Festival and quite close to the main festival hub. So basic proximity was really good – being walking distance to Fed Square.
But then also being on stolen land, and thinking about the deep time of this land was really important to us and quite a challenge as non-indigenous artists.
And being on a site that has a history that is accessible, and has already been really carefully considered by Joe (Norster) and Millie (Cattlin) in setting up Testing Grounds, and that has ongoing projects that contributed to our work. So I think the site and how it puts different projects together was really important because we ended up collaborating with other projects that were happening on site like Community Reading Room, as well as Joe and Millie [who spoke at the second Restival].
Also the conditions of the site with sunlight and the way that the light works in Southbank, being reflected, and also having perpetual artificial light coming through the Box walls at night ended up affecting our project a lot and being an important way we synched up with ‘city time’ while we were staying [overnight] here on site.
TG: Can you elaborate on what it was like to work on an interdisciplinary site – other projects going on, sometimes we have spikes of 100 people on site, sometimes it’s quiet…
CS: It was great having other projects and events happening: we were able to access riggers from the Arts Centre when I was most in need of help learning how to tie ropes; Agatha was able to collaborate with the Community Reading Room when we wanted to talk about how other people had experienced the site and how they brought their histories into the site.
And just in terms of having a varied audience; having people who had come to see other projects.. that encountered our open studio or other things we were doing on site and being able to participate or ask us questions or read books or dive into the projects happening which helped us figure out what we were doing.
I also found that your approach to finding ways to say yes to the things we wanted to do, rather than just getting lots of no’s – I almost didn’t know what to do! I had to think “Oh, we can really do anything.” And that created more problems and more solutions at the same time, because we could do whatever we liked, so we had to decide “what do we really want to do?”
There was one time where you challenged me, “Think about your ideal scenario, and we’ll try to see if we can make that happen,” and I think I’d always worked thinking within the confines of a white gallery space, or had some blinders on that I hadn’t realised when working at other sites. So I think being given that opportunity to think of my ideal project, and imagine, and then find a way to work towards that, was a really nice way of working. And I really, really appreciate that generous style.
TG: If you had your time again on site – if you could have a do-over – would you do anything differently? It’s kind of a weird question for a residency because what happens is by nature not always planned, but is there anything you would change about your time?
CS: Well, this was the first time we all got together as this configuration – as this collective – so it was the first time a lot of us had worked together. I don’t know if we would have done anything better if we had our time over. But I’d love to do another residency in maybe a year’s time, and see what happens then.
If we had a do-over, I would like us to arrange more how we met and how we talked. We still need to figure out how we develop ideas together – we are still learning about that. I would have more of a structure around how we develop ideas and how we push ideas to a certain point to be able to show them. I mean, we brought everything in and we figured everything out as we were working on site – which was great, having the opportunity to do that [development work] at Testing Grounds was amazing. But things like considering the clock, and the open studio, and considering our exhibition – I think we could develop those a lot more, and develop how we frame things, and how we push ideas as a collective.
Recordings and documentation
During their residency, the While the Hour crew recorded their meetings, the Festival speakers, and incidental sounds of the site. They also documented conversations and development drawings for the work produced during the residency. Some of these are kindly reproduced below, with permission from the collective.
Words and images by Trent Griffiths unless otherwise credited