Amelia Wallin: [pre-recorded] This conversation was recorded on the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation. I pay my deepest respects to the elders and ancestors of the Kulin Nation as well as the custodians of the other lands that this conversation reaches. I acknowledge the continuing culture of First Nations people and their profound contribution to art and culture in so-called Australia.
Arini Byng: It’s a natural thing to start working with bodies again, [to get] back into utilising my dance background. I think having this extended time to be able to focus on making work has been good, as it’s really prepared me for the year to come.
Amelia: [pre-recorded] This is a walking conversation between Arini Byng and Amelia Wallin recorded for West Space’s podcast Artist Walks. 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.
Amelia: We’re beginning with a question, asking all the participants to reflect on the last few months: what has it been like for you, and has it been important to maintain a creative practice?
Arini: It has been very important for me to maintain my creative practice as it’s been a really challenging time. I have lost work, [as did] a lot of people… I really needed that structure in my week of going to the studio. Thankfully I had a few exhibitions scheduled that weren’t cancelled but pushed back, so I’ve been just really slowly working away at developing those works and just taking time I suppose. I’m 33 and in my working life I’ve never really had a break for more than a few weeks, so I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take time just for myself to read books or… I live on the Merri Creek so I walked every day, and really just had a little pause, which was really nice. Definitely making work has kept me going throughout this period. I think without that I would have struggled, [and] I definitely have had times of struggle and trying to navigate this new experience that we all had. Making work and researching or taking photographs has kept the pace of things going. And besides that [I’m] in the process of making a website. My archiving isn’t the best, so I spent a lot of time unearthing old works and going through my documentation and finding what I wanted to put online. Websites I find are tricky spaces, so I think it was important to take the time to really think about what I wanted to present.
Amelia: More planning than ever before has been possible, and [I have seen this] take place in the last few months. I feel like works are taking on a deeper register. What are some of the subtle shifts you’ve noticed in your practice?
Arini: Yeah, I think there’s been a lot of time for reflection which I think can often be skipped over because we do often go from one thing to the next without allowing ourselves that time to really reflect on previous work. Making the website allowed me to reflect on much older work. Just having the time to really sit with an idea and have it develop slower than ever before, has been really fantastic.
Amelia: That’s great because you can apply that to a singular work, but then you can also apply that [concept] to a practice, and [as you mentioned] you’re working on your archive and you’re looking back over your past works, you can also follow that trajectory.
I’ve only encountered your performance through the screen,and I also know that mediation is a big part of your practice, how live bodies in space are encountered or mediated through the screen. Of course at the moment that’s how we’re experiencing all performance, and there’s a real call, and a real need for expertise in that way. Whether it’s curatorial expertise or expertise from a practitioner, knowing how to create performance for the digital space. Do you have any thoughts about that which you want to share?
Arini: Well for me I think they’re quite different, separate things. Having a performance that exists solely on a screen or a digital platform, I would treat it very differently to a live work. Trying to translate a live work to the screen I think is quite hard. They’ve both got their own set of strengths and for me but they’re very, very separate.
Often when I create a live work I’ll document it in film and stills but I won’t put on the website the film documentation of the performance, because they’re just so different, it’s like two completely different works. It doesn’t capture the liveness at all in my opinion. But then, the screen is important in my [practice]. I’ve got two collaborative works that are ongoing projects. One with Aaron Christopher Rees, called Live Work, where Aaron and I are live filming dancer Megan Payne in the gallery space [in front of an audience], and it’s quite beautiful almost, seeing the slippage between live and recording.
Amelia: So the dancers in the space and there’s a live feed as well?
Arini: Yeah, and then we’re sort of acting as camera people recording…
Amelia: Oh that’s so nice because it makes you aware of just how constructed that documentation is. It’s all fabricated by the lighting, the positioning, and the story you want to tell. Whereas in live performances you’re relying on the audience, the duration, the feeling of the space, the physical prickelings of bodies coming together and that’s what you can’t translate to the screen but you can do so many other things.
Can you tell us about your other collaboration where screens are involved?
Arini: The other collaboration is a work called Sinkhole, which is an ongoing project with dancer and choreographer Rebecca Jensen and artist Jess Gall. Sinkhole deals with the improvised scenarios and the agency of performing bodies reacting to a written score. And so it’s often quite sprawling, a large group of people performing together, it’s quite a messy kind of work. My role in it is to record each performance and rehearsal, [and] there’s been quite a few iterations now.
Amelia: And have some of your invitations for next year been to create performance for the screen?
Arini: One work is, yes, creating an online presentation… it didn’t necessarily need to be a performance..so that will be early next year. There’s a group of artists all using this new online platform. I’m working with dancer Lilian Steiner, and making essentially a solo dance piece, which I’ve always been really wanting to make, just a dance work, for a long time. And I guess with restrictions and things it’s ended up being a solo work. It’s looking at the relationship between the body and language, and how things are translated and described or transcribed through language. So there’ll be an annotator or narrator describing what is happening on the screen, physically, and then also trying or attempting to describe what’s happening internally, as well, for the dancer.
Amelia: If you were to make the same work in a gallery, versus a work to be broadcast digitally online, what’s shifting for you?
Arini: Online and on a screen you’ve got the parameter of space you’re filming in, and you are in control of how someone is viewing it. So I guess the biggest change between the two is how you frame things. In a live performance you can’t really frame, the audience is looking wherever they want to be looking. So I think I do kind of like the control of being able to show exactly what I want to show? But then there’s almost the sort of freedom that comes with [the live performance] is also enticing.
Amelia: The distinction you pulled out between documenting a work verse making a work for a digital space, that’s that same distinction [indecipherable] just really different works, whether it’s going to be encountered in a gallery or encountered digitally. And it’s, yeah, not just about putting a camera in place and letting the performance unfold. There’s so much more dramaturgy behind the scenes.
Amelia: I also wanted to talk about the work that I encountered on the CCP website that I just learned was first shown at Black Dot.
Arini: Indistinct Chatter was shown at Blak Dot gallery in 2018 as part of a group show there…
Amelia: Okay… on a monitor?
Arini: On a monitor… I built this little scaffolding wall and then yeah… with a monitor sitting on that.
Amelia: I’d like to understand why you returned to Indistinct Chatter in 2020 especially as you’ve mentioned before that’s quite an important work for you. Why, out of this archive of works, it felt important to show in this space at this time?
Arini: It was definitely an important work for me. A very personal work, and a step towards something new and exciting I think, within my practice. It kind of pushed me to put myself in the work [which] is something I hadn’t done before. And working with my Dad… he’s very, very lovely and is always quite um, happy, when… [laughing]… I ask him if he wouldn’t mind being a part…
Amelia: …so this wasn’t the first time?
Arini: No, he had a little cameo here and there in some works. It’s very sweet of him. But it also felt like the right work to present whilst we were all experiencing the effects of social distancing. Because it’s quite tender and soft and it’s really just my limbs and my father’s limbs on screen. We’re slowly navigating each other, as well as household building materials, like bricks and planks of wood and things. So I think just that tender touch, I think really resonated with people during this time. The pace is very slow, in fact it’s slowed down quite a lot. It tends to speak to the emotional range of familial relationships and histories that are common in our culture, and particularly my history, that of Black America.
Amelia: It really struck a nerve when so many people were missing touch so desperately…
Amelia: …and touch between families? When state borders suddenly became a [physical] thing that we had to navigate. And I think it led people to reflect on divisions both in Australia and in the US, and borders in general. You know, the lockdown experience gave pause to that moment of being physically restricted from families. For me, at least, it brought about an empathetic understanding towards people who experience that separation to the extreme, families separated at borders. So it really was incredibly tender to witness this touch between father and daughter, at a moment when we’re being asked not to touch.
As someone who works with gestures, and bodies, and the connection between people, do you feel like your relationship to touch has changed? I mean you’ve spoken about exploring a solo work which is a huge shift.
Arini: I think it has changed quite considerably. I think we’ve all had a new appreciation of how important touch is in our lives? I mean I’m a very tactile, physical kind of person, and so, yeah really adjusting and getting… it’s kind of strange that we’ve had to get used to that? Well some of us I suppose, have had to really adapt and get used to not touching people. I guess there’s a lot of touch in my work in general, and people often comment on how soft and tender the works are. I guess if anything has changed it’s maybe just become overly apparent how important touch is in my work? And that it’s, yeah, a recurring theme I suppose, or tool, that I can’t see changing any time soon. If anything it’s become more important.
Amelia: A reaffirmation of touch…
Amelia: I’m so excited to watch this solo work, because of course, even with a solo dancer, touch and contact is still incredibly important. With the floor, with the air in the space, that’s something that can’t be avoided. The thresholds of where one body ends and another body begins, and I see that, kind of threaded throughout your work as well.
For our final question… we’re thinking about optimism [laughing]… is there anything that you feel optimistic about going into a new year? And, you know, also are there any practices from the last few months that you want to continue, and hold on to?
Arini: I’m excited to see what might come out of this collective chance we’ve all had to pause and rethink how we live our lives, or how we want to be living our lives. And the changes we might be making, and seeing what positive change might come out of that? I mean it’s the first time in my history that anything like this has happened, where we all, as a community, have been given that opportunity… not that everyone has paused. But yes, I think really just taking time to reflect has definitely been something that has come out of this period that I would like to continue. Reflecting on previous works, I did a great amount of reflecting on the work presented on CCP’s website. From 2018 to 2020 the context that it’s been presented in has changed. I think it’s definitely something that I will carry over. And also I do rely heavily on participation, on collaboration, and working with other people, and I really enjoy working with other people. So I think at first I was a bit daunted by the idea of just making a work utilising only myself. And so I was thinking about how I could… what strategies I could use to change my working method to just involve me. And I’ve gone back to photography, which I’ve really enjoyed. I borrowed a friend’s camera and just started taking photographs on my walks for no real reason, just to get familiar with it again. And I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy the process of photographing. And I recently was responding to Olivia at Reading Room, she has a project that’s an ongoing [reflection on] What’s Outside the Window. And so I made a work in response to that where I photographed my brother and his family in their backyard in an embrace, to show how they, as a new family, have been caring and supporting each other during this time. I think everyone is there for each other in maybe a different way than ever before…