This socially distanced conversation between Natalie Thomas and Andy Butler was recorded from the empty grandstand of the football oval across the road from Preston Markets, during the height of stage four lockdowns. Nat talks about precarity, the power of culture, and coming to art from suburban Brisbane.
Andy: [pre-recorded] This is a socially distanced conversation between Nat Thomas and me, Andy Butler, recorded for West Space’s podcast series, Artist Walks. This conversation was recorded on the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation. I pay my deepest respects to elders and ancestors of the Kulin Nations, as well as to custodians of other lands that this podcast reaches. West Space is grateful to the City of Yarra for their support of this podcast, through the City of Yarra Annual Grants Program. Thank you also to Bonnie Cummings for audio mastering, and Justin Balmain for audio editing. Nat and I met up for this conversation at the football oval across the road from Preston Markets. It was the depths of stage four lockdown. We live within 5 kilometers of each other. We sat in the empty stands as joggers did laps in the sun. Nat Thomas has been a practising artist for over 20 years. First in the collaborative duo nat&ali from 1999 to 2005, and later as a solo artist. She works across disciplines including installation, performance, and writing, and her practice considers storytelling as the basis of culture. nattysolo (one woman, one camera, no film) is an ongoing endurance performance project with an online outcome. The widely read project uses the form of the social page and archive, to fuse gossip and innuendo with cultural criticism.
Nat: I think culture is everything. Culture is… the way in which we see ourselves, we see other people and the way that we live. People who make culture are very very very important. Very important. Yeah?
Andy: I remember Postcards From the Edge at The National, and just when I saw that, it really… it was like such a standout for me, and it was a really really amazing work, and it was so good to see you have that moment at the opening. But yeah, I was wondering whether you could, you know, tell us a little bit more about that work?
Nat: I was invited to propose something for The National by Daniel Mudie Cunningham and I really struggled? And then I felt kind of naff because I couldn’t think up an idea. And then I was watching Postcards From the Edge, a film that I’d never seen before, and then it was from there… And I just loved this illusion, but that the film showed you how they were doing that. And I thought that that was really interesting, and that it would be great to build in a space… To just show the audience some of the ways in which things are constructed and can be deconstructed. Things are not how they appear, you know, and this idea of photo opportunities… you know that politicians use them, or, the big… the big check. You know often there’s things that happen and it’s… us signaling to each other “things are okay”. But in this instance the photo op is, “things aren’t okay”. You’re dangling from a tall building. Then I started thinking about fear. How our fear is leveraged against us, you know, and how disempowering that is. And often when you’re fearful, you know, you want to… you get online and you buy some shit you don’t need… You eat a lot of food that’s not good for you… There’s certain things that you do.
Nat: You get drunk.
Andy: Yeah, yeah.
Nat: You know, that actually aren’t helping at all.
Nat: Someone said to me that they’d seen, uh, lots of single guys trying to hook up on tinder, had used it as their profile photo.
Andy: [laughing] Ohh, yeah.
Nat: See I’ve never been on tinder.
Nat: Anyway I thought that was a certain, you know, badge of honor.
Andy: Yeah, totally, and I guess trying to show women they can live dangerously!
Nat: And also that they’re lovers of art…
Andy: Very cultured… [laughing]
Nat: Very cultured! [laughing]
Andy: Yeah, oh that’s great!
Andy: So how’s it been recently working out of your home studio?
Nat: Well I usually work from home so, uh, that’s all g. You know, not much of a change there except that, uh, usually Maxine our daughter goes to school, and Morgan goes to work. I’ve just realized how much I enjoy solitude, and solitude is, you know, a part of my creative process. We’ve just had to find new ways, I guess, to use the house. So Morgan’s really set up the shed now, as his chill-out space, and he goes there. Maxine’s pretty bedroom driven…
Andy: As teenagers often are…
Nat: Teenagers, and ventures out occasionally when we’re lucky. When she’s put together a new look, or something. [laughing] She’s doing lots of makeup, and outfits and stuff, I think gearing up for when she’s allowed out [laughing].
Andy: Yeah well you’ve got to have something to look forward to!
Nat: It’s like, “look at these cat’s eyes”.
Andy: Is it… was your studio previously in the shed though? So have you had your… your studio occupied? Or…
Nat: So it’s sort of all over the house…
Andy: Oh yeah, yeah.
Nat: I’ve got a round table in the dining room that I’m sort of, pack up and pack down, and I generally write there. We’re really lucky that, you know, we’ve got a detached house, with a backyard and stuff. Um, but yeah, there’s just occasionally a sense that there’s a lot more people around the home than there usually is, [laughs] because usually it’s just me all day and then they get home and I’m really happy to see them and… but now I’ve got to go for a walk to come home and be happy to see them!
[train horn in the background]
Andy: Yeah… it’s interesting that you say that you need a lot of solitude for your art practice, because, thinking about nat&ali, like, in you know, the… in the first part of your art career, you were everywhere! And it seems like all of your art is about socializing, and the performance of being together.
Nat: I do do that, but underneath that is… a lot of solitude. I’m at home by myself all day, and then I go… I venture out to art openings, and that becomes almost like a workplace or a… well it’s a lot of things all at once isn’t it? You know, at a great opening of a friend it’s a celebration of, you know, their “genius”, their “creative genius” [laughs]. But it’s also a place to, you know, talk about what you’ve been doing and, yeah it’s a whole lot of things. Yeah it’s like a… it’s a crit, it’s all sorts of things.
Andy: I guess I’m just really interested in the sense of… performance that seems to be in so much of your work? But also, I guess I’m thinking about the audition that you had at CAVES recently, but also the sort of… the performance of being an artist? Like, what are the sorts of tensions that… that you’re interested in there?
Nat: Well I’m from a really working class family, like, I got brought up playing a fuck ton of sport. You know sport was a thing that we did. Netball, squash… you know and that was our social release and, you know, it’s energetic and that’s just… at no point do I ever remember going to an art gallery… as a kid… not at all. Just like… no interaction. Um, you know, mum and dad were both really into music, but, you know we didn’t go to see plays… yeah, suburban Brisbane. And then I left Queensland and went to London and lived. And I was hanging out with different people that i’d just met, and they were all really interested in art and music. And I just engaged in it, and it just sort of, from there… I just thought “wow i’ve been really missing out here”. You know, I didn’t do art at high school. I did it in year eight, I thought I couldn’t draw… and that was that. It sort of was like a full stop. So I guess coming to it later, I was already a school teacher, I worked as a school teacher in London. I taught Home Economics and English…
Andy: Oh cool…
Nat: Yeah. Teaching, you know, high school kids to cook is a really great job… because they’re really hungry.
Andy: And it’s a very important life skill!
Nat: It’s… yeah, it’s a… you know, it’s a good job. I liked it.
Andy: Yeah… Do you still do that?
Nat: Well maybe I will [laughs] after, um… yeah maybe next year I will. But yeah I just sort of fell in love slowly with art, and… I think in a way we’re all performing this idea of what an artist is, really, and i’m just saying “this is a pretty funny job” [laughing]. It’s a pretty weird thing to decide, “I’m an artist”. I also don’t… you know, I choose to be an artist. I don’t think I’ve been born an artist. I don’t… I think that that… you know, the producer versus the creator… you know, I think to say that you’re a creator is really pretentious. It’s a choice i think, and it’s a choice that you continually should… you know, does it suit you? And I think that at the moment… you know, we spoke earlier about this year, it being made very obvious to us that the government has a very healthy disdain for makers of culture. And I don’t think that it’s in our best interest to pretend that that’s not the case… because, the government has also decided that they don’t like academics.
Andy: Yeah, it’s a shit time to be in the arts or academia at the moment.
Nat: You know? And, it’s just like, “oh dear!” And, this is one of the signs of the rise of a fascist state. You know? There’s a few others, nepotism, we see that. The crony capitalism that surrounds us in society. You know this is some pretty heavy shit going on right now, yeah?
Andy: Yeah, and what is it about art as a form to sort of engage with those ideas that draws you to it? Like why… why art to ask those sorts of questions?
Nat: Well I like… I like that in art there’s… there are rules but simultaneously there’s not rules… that the artists historically that have broken the rules… have actually just done something really great for us all. And… in the pandemic it’s really important to follow the rules. I don’t mind following rules if there’s a reason for that rule, yeah? That’s to benefit everyone, but i don’t just willy-nilly just follow rules. And that’s something… I don’t know where that came from, I think from my family? I think it’s really important to look at where rules are, and why they’re there, and to have a little bit of a poke around that.
Andy: So obviously, like a lot of other people, who’ve sort of, only been around the art world for maybe the past like five or so years, I was drawn to your work through your blog, through Natty Solo. And it seems there that you were just consistently jabbing at the rules of the art world? And trying to really like, scratch away at the dynamics of power behind them, and why they exist…
Andy: You know, the art world is so insular, and such a strange place, like why do you think the rules of the art world are an interesting thing to unpack?
Nat: Because I think that culture is… hugely hugely vastly important. Culture is the way in which we see ourselves, we see other people, and the way that we live. You know what I mean? It’s what we do, it’s how we think, it’s not a little thing. That’s why control freaks, they go for us, it’s because we got that much power! So I think that simultaneously what attracted me to culture was the mess. It’s highly contested. It’s really congested right now as well, there’s a lot of us. It… it reflects people’s really really deep philosophies about life, yeah? So I’m not religious, so art is as close as I get. I guess… it’s a framework in which to sort of look at things. How we treat each other, the assumptions that we make, you know?
Andy: Yeah, it seems to me that, yeah, you’re really interested in the ways that culture is… gets created out of this mess is somehow shaped by people sort of at the top?
Nat: Well you know, it’s… it’s a neoliberal system. Just like every other system that we live in, and neoliberalism ain’t cool! That is the basis of what we’re fighting to… how can, you know, we spread the available resources around to more people? And give more people a go? Why is it that certain names just crop up on every list? You know, why is it that one person can win three prizes in a year? Why are there art prizes, where artists pitted against each other like we’re sports people? You know, one painting cannot beat another painting, actually. That is just a construct. People have decided that’s an okay thing to do. In a way, to give money to artists, but in fact it’s deeply dangerous, because it fights again-… it makes art seem like there’s a winner and a loser and that is just not the case. It’s divisive to artistic community. Historically too many art prizes have gone to white men. Problematic! And… it’s just not a good way to hand resources out to artists, it’s not. Because art is subjective, there is no right and wrong. There is only opinion. You know, we need to talk about there being no wrong. What a beautiful thing! Like, I think that people talk about music really really well. You don’t say… I think it’s ridiculous for people to say “oh my favorite band of all time is…”. You got a mood, you try and suit the song to the mood. And sometimes you get it… you can listen to a song, and then all of a sudden one day, you’ve just had enough and you never want to hear that song ever again! Well art’s like that. Except we don’t speak about it nearly as well, I don’t think.
Andy: Yeah, yeah, we try and pick winners, and then sort of canonize them and make them live on forever, as if they’re like the only… like, pinnacle of art that’s existed.
Nat: I’m less and less interested in the big names, and I’m more and more interested in, you know, who didn’t make the final exhibition. I find it really deeply upsetting that during the pandemic, that arts organizations think it’s okay to publish “we’ve had record numbers of entries this year”, and it’s like well “der Fred, um we got nothing, you know like we’re just struggling to survive here!”. And I have not seen an arts prize that says an entry fee has… you know, “we’re handling that this year”. You see these are just… I’m not interested in artists being used as a revenue stream. Our dreams need to be supported [laughs] and… whilst you could say 45 dollars is nothing for me, it’s not nothing. It actually represents something very real, and it’s about respect. So arts administrators, we need to pay them to look at our stuff? I’m just like yeah, nah! I don’t think that’s good. I want to see who’s willing to put some skin in the game. Because as it stands right now artists have got too much skin in the game. We’ve absorbed a lot of the risk. Like, I knew when I chose to be an artist that… that I was going to take on a fair bit of risk. But you know, when we’re the only ones in the whole scene that are taking on all the risk… I don’t think that that’s really fair.
Andy: No, not at all. Especially the huge financial risk that we’re expected to take.
Andy: Yeah, phwoar…
Nat: You know precariousness… this is… when I talk about the risk that artists face, we know that precariousness is part of what we do. However, I probably didn’t know it was going to be this bad? I guess. And I think that the question that artists need to ask right now is, what percentage of the budget of arts organisations goes to artists? And I think to really push on that, from the larger organisations, who do a lot of virtue signaling, yeah?
Andy: Yeah totally.
Nat: But, what percentage of the NGV’s budget goes to artists? International artists, local artists. I think it’s a fair question to ask, because I think that the result might actually be highly shocking.
Andy: Yeah totally. I um… yeah so it’s just really interesting you talking about precarity and not… and not realizing to be this precarious.
Nat: We’ve got institutions here that are very well funded, and the NGV thinks it’s fine to commission the world’s largest Kaws sculpture, for over three million dollars. Well for me, you know. I’m like, imagine sending out the email to like 300 Australian artists that they’ve each got 10 grand or so. You know, like I don’t know the math but…
Nat: …just, you know, how can 3.5 million dollars be better spent, than on a massive bloody… the world’s largest ever Kaws, you know? And it’s the Pietà. And it’s just like, dude that’s a whole lot of bronze, you flew it in on a plane, and I’m not interested in the voices of any more white American bro dudes, just not interested! Not feeling it… you know what i mean? Especially one that’s like “ohh isn’t life hard”, I’m like bitch! [laughing] Come on now. You know, I’m like, can we just call time out? You know like, it’s the Jackson Pollock of another era, i’ve just had enough of it!
Andy: Yeah totally.
Nat: But actually it does say a lot about us. We’re very willing to import, not so interested in supporting local talent, and then attempting to export. Not… not that good at that. You know money doesn’t make good art, artists make it. Often, just because someone’s been given a big commission doesn’t mean that that art will be good. It might be bigger, it might be shinier, but… there’s lots of people who don’t like big shiny art. There’s lots of people for whom big shiny art is… a symbol of the end of something, not the beginning of something. You know, we right now need to scale the fuck back. Scale everything back. And I don’t think the ideas need to be smaller, but the actual physical objects, yeah. Bigger is not… bigger is just bigger. Culture is not Chadstone shopping town.
Andy: [laughing] Yeah.
Nat: The biggest shopping town in the southern hemisphere. You know like, we’ve got to get beyond some of these metrics.
Andy: Sort of just, to wrap up like, you know thinking about how it’s the… you know hopefully the last few weeks of stage four? And that hopefully at some point soon we’ll be able to travel more than five kilometers away from our house…
Andy: …oh my god. Um, yeah what are you hopeful for on the other side of this?
Nat: You don’t take a night out for granted… that’s pretty great.
Andy: [laughing] Yeah.
Nat: I think there’s gonna be lots of people just smiling off their dial, getting around town really happy, isn’t it?
Andy: Yeah, yeah.
Nat: A bad night out is… probably still better than no night out at all? I don’t know. I think, actually it’s… I’m gonna have to go pretty slow, yeah. But then I’m old so… Look, I just look forward to meeting up with the people I see at art openings, and having a chat with them, which is this huge group of people. People that, you know, I don’t have their phone number, or, you know, arrange to meet up, you just stumble into folk. I love that random element, the unscripted? All you’ve got to do is just show up between these hours, and then you run into people and then the night goes on from there? Very lovely.
Nat: You know they say before a test you’re supposed to eat chocolate or something?
Andy: Oh really? Why’s that?
Nat: Because it’s a little bit of caffeine and a little bit of sugar, and it’s really good for focusing my…
Andy: Ohh yeah.
Andy: Did you have a bit of chocolate before you came?
Nat: No, I forgot… [laughs]
Andy: No? I actually should have bought some, um, there’s been some really good sales on chocolate at Coles, I think for people who are like, stuck, at home depressed?
Nat: Yeah yeah, we have been eating so much more chocolate and… we’ve just taken to icy poles too. Like, and it’s not just a little, small icy pole, what a… a maxi bon? Which I think is about the size of about three icy poles?
Andy: [laughing] Yeah, I think they’re like fancy ones, they’re the good ones aren’t they?
Nat: Yeah. Yeah, it’s like… Friday night in. A maxi bon.
Nat: It’s like, do we deserve it? No, but fuck it anyway.
Natalie Thomas is a Melbourne-based artist and writer. Thomas maintains a diverse and independent practice that considers storytelling as the basis of culture. Her work engages with the mass media and its role in the how we see each other and the world. nat&ali (1999–2005) was a collaboration that riffed with riot grrrl strategies. nattysolo (one woman, one camera, no film) is an ongoing endurance performance project with an online outcome. The widely read project uses the form of the social page and social archive and fuses gossip and innuendo with scathing cultural criticism.