Looking to expand their practice beyond their home stomping-grounds of East Gippsland, artist collective Owls of Nebraska approached Testing Grounds for some time and space to work in the Arts Precinct.
Beginning with email conversations with Program Manager and Curator Arie and a site visit to explore the space, the Owls took up residence in (and more or less moved into) the Black Box for two days from November 23 to November 24. Their time on site culminated in a showing of their work, alongside two other exhibition openings on Friday night.
Owls first got in touch with Testing Grounds through an Expression of Interest submission, proposing to stage a series of performances, installations, and interactive digital works utilising some of the digital recordings the collective had previously made in and around Gippsland. Seeing a larger opportunity to expand the collective’s practice and to produce some more site-specific work, Testing Grounds instead proposed an intensive development period with Program Manager and Curator Arie actively involved in the development as facilitator, provocateur, and creative support. The aim was to use an intensive development time to tease out some key themes emerging from and running through the different practices of the collective, and to chart new lines of creative exploration.
The focus of the development period, in the words of the group, was “To plan a project / series of projects which test the validity of creative practice as a life process, particularly in relation to the borders / boundaries between art practice and laywork. As practitioners who earn money outside of the art industry in mundane areas of labour (ie: professional artists without financial backing from the sanctioned arts industry) we intend to explore where our practice informs our approach to and experience of ‘work’ and through this we will also explore ‘work’ as a cultural ideal which may or may not include or exclude connections with other sentient beings.”
Program Manager perspective
Question: How did the Owls approach Testing Grounds to work here? How did the development period come about?
Answer (Arie Rain Glorie): They filled out an EOI, and the development period came about from follow up conversations fleshing out that proposal. They took me up on my offer to meet face to face and talk about the project further, and over a few hours talking I saw that there were some interesting questions about the identity of the collective, and how they communicate their ideas to the wider world – to other galleries and/or creators and producers – which I thought I could help them work through.
I also saw a lot of value for artists living and working in a regional area to be immersed in the city – specifically in the arts precinct – where they could have a dedicated space they could set up and build on (rather than living rooms or back yards).
Q: Why did you agree to work with them as a development project?
A: I guess it was more a case of them agreeing to work with me! But we formed the relationship because it is useful to have an objective outside eye looking in on a group to give a different perspective on their work and their group dynamic. I wanted to tease out who they are and why they make work. They have a lot of really rich and interesting ideas, but because they come from such different backgrounds and work across different disciplines, those ideas can tend to crowd each other out. That’s where I saw I could help in a development period – give those ideas a good boil down in order for other people to make sense of it, and help them consider their (potential) audiences more.
Q: What had you planned to do with them, and what ended up happening in terms of your involvement?
A: We emailed back and forth in the months leading up, and they came to site to see the facilities when we first met after their initial EOI. Once we agreed on a development period, I met with them a few days beforehand with a structure for some self-lead exercises in using the space to generate new ideas and new work. I asked them what they wanted to explore, and then together we came up with exercises to do explore these ideas. I emphasised my role in facilitating their use of time to keep them on track and focused. On the first day they said they had talked about and no longer wanted to follow this structure because they felt it was too close a structure to their art school experiences. We then decided that it would be better if they just got to work, and I came in when requested to give a critique and discuss their ideas with them. So I ended up being more hands off as a facilitator, and worked with them more as a guest “curator” for the works they developed themselves.
Q: Describe how the creative process happened over the two days.
A: The Owls brought in lots of costumes and props and began filling the space, and then Kate and Paul set up cameras and gave the Anthea and Kim provocation to start performing. At heart, the Owls explore how to incorporate everyday life into performance (and vice versa). For the two days of development, the space was really crowded with stuff, and at one stage someone lost a note book and everyone else started searching through the debris to find it, which turned into a performance. From here we developed the idea that they use improvisation of everyday situations to generate new work.
Q: How did the showing ‘Leftovers’ come about? In what way did you curate this?
A: They printed out some of their photo documentation because it is always good to get images off a screen – the work always looks different in printed form. These were really interesting documents in their own right, and they had also made some installations and sculptural interventions in the space. They asked me if they could do a showing or open studio, and I simply said ‘yes’ and offered them some lighting. My main role was discussing with them the use of lighting, and how adding a theatrical element might change the work, as well as pushing them to pare back the space to show only those elements they thought were the strongest in terms of audience engagement.
Q: How do you see the group’s work having developed during their time at Testing Grounds? What value do you see in having come from their time on site?
A: In a sense I wouldn’t characterise their work as having ‘developed’, because by ‘develop’ we usually mean ‘change’, right? In the end they still produced work run the vein of the proposal they had submitted months before through the EOI process. And thats ok, because developments are small steps at a time, not giant leaps. What they got out of it was having a clean formal space to work in that is removed from their domestic environment (in Gippsland), and a tighter focus on certain key ideas than their process usually allows. They grappled with some good questions about how they communicate what their group is and why they make work, and they had good conversations about the use of technology and live performance in their practice. Most of the group come from a print making practice so it was really interesting to see their response to the question of what their work means for the audience or viewer, something that needs to be considered in a completely different way when making 2D work to hang on a wall.
The Owls will return to Testing Grounds for another three day development period in mid-February 2018, to continue exploring the themes and techniques emerging from their 2017 development period.