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Amelia Wallin, Rafaela Pandolfini & Mitchel Cumming in conversation

Myths & Facts is an ongoing research project by artist Rafaela Pandolini and collaborators. In the summer months of 2020 and 2021, the project will take form as a processional series of ten images displayed on billboards along the Hume Highway between New South Wales and Victoria.

Myths & Facts interrogates Australia’s failure to address environmental violence at a policy level. Evasive phrases pertaining to the government’s position on climate change have been transposed from the mouths of politicians onto “Chux” cleaning cloths. Stripped of context, these empty phrases signal our government’s disguise and deferral of the environmental emergencies we currently face. 

Rafaela’s close-up photographs of the Chux take on a forensic quality. On the absorbent fibres, the hand-painted lettering leaks, blurring with watercolour paintings and the stains of daily use. The familiar zigzag pattern of these ubiquitous household cloths is a recurring backdrop for Rafaela’s ongoing exploration of gendered and emotional labour.

For Offsite Issue 3 Rafaela shares part of her research project, including a selection of four images, created in collaboration with designers and her children, a conversation with researcher and collaborator Mitchel Cumming, and a series of music mixes by collaborating sound artists and DJs. 

Intended to span the 878kms / 9 hour, 12-minute drive between Sydney and Melbourne, more music compilations by different contributors will be added to West Space Offsite over the coming months. In February 2021 the complete series will be installed on billboards in Sydney and Melbourne’s CBDs, and at different points along the Hume highway. This particular stretch of highway is personally significant for Pandolfini, and it was dramatically impacted during the fire season when catastrophic weather conditions forced its closure. At the time of writing, travel between Sydney and Melbourne via the Hume is again impossible. State borders are closed between Victoria and New South Wales, as Victoria attempts to control the rise in COVID-19 cases.

In the following conversation, Rafaela and Mitchel reflect on the interconnections of these overlapping disasters and discuss the research behind the project.

Amelia Wallin,
August 2020

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Amelia Wallin: Myths & Facts is an evolving body of work. The first version took the form of large-scale fabric banners which you exhibited at The Downing Centre in Sydney, a former department store which now operates as a courthouse. In that iteration, its central concern was the usage of legal language in cases of sexual assault and classifications of rape. In the exhibition context of the courthouse, the work became an unintentional background for media interviews for high profile criminal cases. 

Rafaela, from this first display, you started thinking about inner-city and regional audiences, and you conceived of underused billboards as a site for display. As Australia’s disastrous bushfire season played out in 2019-2020, your ideas shifted again. Can you speak to how the series has evolved in response to these ecological and geographical changes?

Rafaela Pandolfini: The Myths & Facts in politics are constant, especially those with rhetoric that sell the policies which get the Australian governments elected. I have been interested in these moments where it has become glaringly obvious that political rhetoric is bullshit. 

The bushfires are a perfect case in point. Scott Morrison took to the airwaves to ‘reassure’ children who were taking time off school to protest against climate change and politicians’ continual inaction. Morrison called the students’ concerns “needless anxieties” just 2 months before the horrific fires began burning.

I have always looked at those billboards when I drive the mainly monotonous road trip between Melbourne and Sydney. There are so many billboards that are often unused. I get that it must be eternally irritating for city people to come in with their art and comment on regional issues, but I feel like the fires can’t be, as hard as they try, covered up as something other than climate change and a devastating lack of mismanagement and inaction on the government’s behalf and most importantly a disregard for indigenous land practices. The fire’s are something we all experienced to some degree. 

AW: Now we are, of course, experiencing another major transformation. How are you thinking about the interconnectedness of the Australian bushfires and the current global pandemic? In what ways has the series changed or evolved yet again?

RP: They are both a result of capitalism and old white people’s greed and ignorance.

I haven’t changed the works at all, I think the irony of the myths that politicians and any money / power hungry individual or business uses to retain power, versus the facts of what actually happens to people and land can be used in ANY situation. The billboards will go up in summer, so they will speak to the bushfire experience we shouldn’t forget.

Mitchel Cumming: It’s true, the causes of these crises are structurally the same. And in many ways we found that the linguistic strategies that those in power use in response are the same too, even if they function differently. Climate change, as this durational process, means there is this endless deferral of responsibility: any causal link the public might make between policy and disaster can be blurred and distorted by repetitive, mind-numbing phrases that give the appearance of action while doing nothing. In the context of Covid, we get the same use of short, sharp, repetition, but it signals the opposite: it is the government reminding us of its absolute authority to act now, in the present moment, and with force. The discourse isn’t around the complex root causes of zoonotic diseases, or about the long-term problems of privatising aged care facilities. It is about expanded police powers and individual responsibility. So one is about absolving us of our fears, gaslighting us if we say we are scared of a future on fire. And the other is utilising our fear of the present, to make sure we don’t think about how we got here.

AW: Thinking about sharing the works digitally in the context of West Space Offsite, there is a dramatic shift in scale: from billboard size to smartphone screen. What is different in this context? What gets lost, or what is gained?

RP: I am not sure as the billboards only go up in 2021, but I think they are actually very similar experiences. The billboard flashes past as does a digital image. 

The only difference would be the actual object as a textile, they are much more nuanced off the screen / billboard. There is a lot of texture in the beautiful 1000% polyester material, especially in combination with the pens and paint. 

AW: This body of work has become a major research project, encompassing government policy, legal documents and “media speak”. Are there other elements that have informed the text component? Mitchel, can you please describe the process of undertaking this research? 

MC: I suppose the first thing we had to do was to determine the scope of the research: how far back did we want to go when framing this relationship between political messaging and its resultant environmental catastrophe(s).  As Raf mentioned, the pervasiveness of this mythical language in politics makes it hard to draw that line in the rhetorical sand, but we decided to begin with the election of the Abbott Government in 2013. Abbott’s campaign in the lead up to the election was “slogan-rich”, and focussed almost entirely on his promise to abolish Labour’s Carbon Tax. So in this sense, 2013 became a kind of ground zero from which to chart the shifting language around climate policy at the Federal level – from the active rejection of action on climate change to the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019.

What was so interesting to me about Raf’s first project at the Downing Centre was its focus on the sterilized language of legal discourse: the ways in which all of this officious terminology around consent obscures the real, personal, human experiences of sexual assault. When we started the research for Myths & Facts, I think we were looking for something similar: How was the violence of climate change denial being obfuscated through the language of law? So I started by looking through official government documents – proposed legislation and the like – and drawing out examples of terminology that seemed to be trying to disguise its real intentions.

But I think what became apparent pretty quickly was that we were more interested in a different kind of argumentation: the way that politicians were speaking to the voting public directly. These Myths came in the form of media sound-bytes and slogans in op eds by politicians. These falsehoods weren’t interested in discretion in the way legal language might be. They worked by excessive repetition and dog-whistle. So my research shifted to focus on media releases, radio interviews (2GB on heavy rotation), press club statements, etc. And it became more like a process of tallying the most common phrases and watching them shift and morph with the seasons.

The other thing to point out is that it became difficult to focus on the language of legislation because there simply wasn’t any! Most of the discussion around climate happened at the level of empty sloganeering, while the government avoided anything resembling coherent policy. This was maybe the most depressing aspect of the research for me: trawling through this wall of sound up front and finding silence behind it.

AW: The phrases on the clothes are fragments of larger documents. Can you speak to their origins, and the process of selection?

MC: The research document is a kind of chronology in this sprawling excel spreadsheet, that charts the government’s “response” to climate change over the seven year period. For each major event in that timeline, I collated key documents (legislation, white papers, policy reviews, media transcripts, etc.) and then started to pull out short phrases that seemed to capture the tone of the government’s position at that time. We catalogued these in context at first, and then started to think about how they might read as non-sequiturs: as snippets of language that would be encountered on these billboards.

RP: I shared the really detailed document that Mitch had pulled together with Audrey Schmidt and Ainslie Templeton, writers I have worked with quite a bit over the past few years. They were also both involved with An Unintended Consequence (of labour) at The Downing Centre. 

Ainslie and Audrey both produced poems from the repetitive phrases, playing on political diatribe like Roosavelt’s infamous forgeign policy reference “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Ainslie has a brilliantly lyrical way of assembling words, smooth sentences that end with a punch. They both jumped around the different years from 2013 – 2019 in the spreadsheet and played on the evolving phrases that Mitch identified. 

Audrey is an expert, esp[ecially] with found text poems;

We will see the big stick
And meet in a canter

under the big stick
a real big stick

No slouch
Heavy lifting

This is coal
Don’t be afraid

Hotter, drier, longer
Miracles

Putting a big stick on needless anxieties
Stay safe and have fun this new year

From these poems I pulled out some of the shorter phrases for the billboards works. 

AW: This project has many collaborators, from Rafaela’s children, to designers, DJs and poets. Why was it important to bring music and poetry into the project?

RP: I work with lots of people who add way more than I ever could to a project, I feel like I am just facilitating. Because this work is about language and its trickery it made sense to involve other writers and poets. 

Rozsa and Sabine sum things up a whole lot better than I can! They always help me with stuff and as we have been at home so much from when the fires started and throughout COVID they had the time to work out how to paint on the Chux cloths after quite a few tantrum / experiments because they can be really hard to work. Some Chux are really porous and everything bleeds and others are stiff and refuse the character.

The music mixes are a response to the durational aspect of the project. I always envisaged driving down the Hume to document the show. I do the drive often and always listen to mixes / music the whole way whenever I drive down to see friends and family. Most (maybe all) viewers wouldn’t be making that trip so the 8-hour long mixes will make up the time it takes to drive Sydney – Melbourne on the Hume route.  

The artists who are making the mixes are people whose work I always listen to or have worked with over the years. Their mixes and music lighten my life in general especially on a long drive and especially during COVID!

AW: Could you speak about the collaborative process between you as an artist Rafaela, and you as a researcher Mitchel?

RP: From my perspective, he was as much the artist and I am as much the researcher in this project. Mitch did the forensic work and immaculate compiling but it was actually the way that he was able to identify the ludicrous terminology aka spin, and the repetitive evolution of these phrases and how this could translate to billboards, that gave the research much more meaning. Mitch was really helpful in taking my super broad idea and refining it into something specific. The fires helped that as well. 

MC: I’d loved Raf’s original Myths & Facts banners from An Unintended Consequence…, so I went into the research process guided by her use of language in that context. I think it made things a little more intuitive, already having an impression of what (I thought) Raf might be looking for. We spent a month or so exchanging text messages whenever we came across particularly depressing Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison interviews, and that helped to clarify the tone of the work too I think: trying to find something generative together in despair. 

In terms of the artist/researcher split, a lot of my own practice is kind of caught up in the aesthetics of background labour, so it felt natural taking on the role of researcher and knowing that it was serving something else. And the content definitely fed into other things I was working on too, other poems, so it was generative for me in a whole range of ways. I’m really grateful for the way Raf works, looking to develop relationships and bring people in. 

Rafaela Pandolfini is a photographer and artist, also working in the curatorial. Rafaela explores feminine identity in the broadest sense as well as the value of labour. She holds an MFA from UNSW. From 2009 onwards Rafaela spent time photographing in clubs/dancefloors across Sydney, she continues to photograph for many prominent artists and institutions. In 2015 Rafaela created an epic 8-hour video called 02-02 A dance for every day of my pregnancy, exhibited in Realising Mother at Kudos Gallery and Campbelltown Arts Centre. 02-02 explores themes of the performative body, maintenance and care work. Rafaela’s curatorial work includes Inside, co-curated with Stella Rosa McDonald, Session Vessels and An Unintended Consequence (of labour) organised with Ainlise Templeton and Cosmopolitan organised with Jana Hawkins-Andersen.

Mitchel Cumming is an artist, poet and a founding co-director of KNULP, Sydney. His work is concerned with peripheral and recessional gestures of aesthetic framing and address. His practice frequently involves the establishment and/or manipulation of exhibition contexts, a process in which elements generally considered supplementary to artistic production become instead a primary material.