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This conversation between Abbra Kotlarczyk and Amelia Wallin was recorded whilst walking along the waterways on the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nation.

The conversation was recorded outside, with the speakers wearing masks, in the company of Abbra’s baby Kitaj. Abbra and Amelia discuss parenting during the pandemic, experiences of thick time, composting and borrowed words, and Abbra’s recent commission for Lieu journal.

Further resources:

Abbra Kotlarczyk – Breath Work on Lieu Journal

Abbra Kotlarczyk – Breath Work on Lieu Journal (audio)

The following transcript has been edited for clarity. A word-for-word transcript can be found here.


Amelia: [pre-recorded] This conversation was recorded on the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nation. I pay my deepest respect to the Elders and ancestors of the Kulin nation, as well 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. 

[walking sounds, birds chirping, wind]

Abbra: For me, I grew up in the rainforest up in Northern NSW, sort of Gondwana area, and I think missing that space has been as huge as missing family. So I think coming here, on this site that where we are now, along Edgars creek, on Woiwurrung Country has been really incredible as far as fostering a routine. It has really provided some immersion in nature that I otherwise haven’t been getting, along with a lot of people, but also in the face of that lack of return, return to a space that I’ve been really really needing I think.     

Amelia: [pre-recorded] This is a walking conversation between Abba Kotlarczyk 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.

[walking sounds, baby crying in background]

Amelia: We’re returning to the same place where you have undertaken a lot of research and thinking, and where we’re both thinking through this [walking] practice. This is the first time we’ve met, we’re thinking through connections and meeting each other while walking and it’s really special.

Abbra: It is, yeah, and there’s a different sort of conversational mode obviously that happens when you’re walking.

Amelia: I’d love to hear generally what the last few months have been like for you, in regards to parenthood and creative work, and different levels of isolation, or not.

Abbra: Yeah, it’s interesting, I was hearing lots of other people reflect on this time and obviously there’s such a broad experience of the restrictions and implications of it. I was thinking about if this had happened before I was a parent I would have almost taken to it, despite all this anxiety and fear. I’m very much an introvert and a homebody, so for me I think it would have been this {experience of ] like really relishing in the time, in a very different way than what the experience has been.

Welcoming a new baby in May, on the downside of the first wave, you know, created this very new dynamic on top of the pandemic. It was this strange sort of combination of obviously so much oxytocin and buoyancy, I think with him being around, combined with just really survival mode, having two children at home during that two month stage four period. We were just really thrown in the deep end in learning that dynamic. We were really fortunate when he was born as we had a period of about three weeks where we were able to have visitors over. Which was really quite incredible because then we went into obviously really severe isolation, I think that was a bit of a saving grace? As far as having that bit of normality, catching up with lots of friends in quite an intensive way, but then sort of relishing in that once the dynamic really dramatically shifted.

Amelia: And I imagine it’s hard enough to maintain creative work and parenthood under normal circumstances [Abbra: Ah, absolutely], so under circumstances of extreme stage four lockdown and stay at home orders, have you had to adapt your practice, have you had to change your working methodology in order to keep working, or have you carved out space for creative work? [baby moaning]

Abbra: I haven’t really managed to, the only sort of work in an outcome based way that I’ve managed to engage with was the Lieu Journal piece, but I was actually quite sick at the time of creating that as well, which was with a chest infection which was kind of interesting in terms of what I was looking to get out of that piece. 

Amelia: Oh, really interesting, actually I loved listening to that piece and almost half way through you do…  it does become quite difficult for you to maintain your whisper, there’s a moment when…

Abbra: Yeah, my voice cracks and…

Amelia: And you can hear, it becomes really durational and really embodied, and yeah you can hear the struggle.

Abbra: I think, yeah, the breathing, the decision to record that with the voice kind of put to the side was really practical, as far as where I was at, but it obviously had such a resonance with the work. That work was quite intensive to make, but it was really important for me to have that process embedded in that time. Where it felt like everything else had been pushed to the side, out of necessity of not having time and space. It’s a very dense work, I think there were a lot of parts to bring into a cohesive sort of narrative. 

[walking sounds fading]

Abbra: [whispered and pre-recorded] Inhale, and raise your arms, above your head. Apply a small amount of tea tree oil to the tip of a cotton ball. All arrangements require pain. Hold the cotton ball up to the opening of your mouth so that your breath might catch its oil and become dry, brittle, might shrink. Is not the acquisition of speech based on the ability to fit the words in one’s mouth, to push the lips this way and that, shaping breath into particular forms. Slowly, peel your breathing away from its body, so that it becomes a tender outlier draped on the floor. Look over at your sculpted breath skin, attend to it daily. Think about what it means to de-nature, to render something so alive. Antibacterial, antifungal. Are you now, analgesic? Antiviral? 

Amelia: [baby moaning throughout] Two things I want to bring up about that work, one is this kind of idea of collage, of borrowed words. It made me think of another metaphor that I’ve read in your writing about composting, and this reusing, recycling, layering, gestating. What drew you to using other people’s words in that piece?

[baby moaning]

Abbra: I’ve been thinking about relationality to others. I think it was really cemented in having children that I’m not biologically connected to. I’ve started thinking a lot about affinity, as opposed to genealogy, in the case of my kinship structures. But the bringing in of so many other voices at the time of what we were dealing with — the Black Lives Matter movement, compounded with Covid — and this sort of endemic breathlessness that was happening, tt just felt like the point of resuscitation for that work needed to be collective. I think it very much works into the composting, the frugality, aspect as well. [using the words of others] was a necessity.

Amelia: I love that. And to hear that metaphor extended to writing is really interesting. Are there [different] ways that you think about your artistic practice as well as your writing practice? Well I suppose the Lieu Journal piece really is sitting between the two, is that how you see it?

Abbra: That [piece] was a new trajectory for me which I think was very much responding to the moment, but intuitively it brought in a lot of those methodologies that I feel like have been coming through my writing and engaging with other people’s work more so than my own practice, in terms of making. But I think it’s very much created this new trajectory as far as future work, I have a couple of shows next year, and it’s very much embedded in thinking about those shows from that perspective.

Amelia: Are they using that same methodology of borrowing words, and collective positionality?

Abbra: Yeah, again I think coming back to the affinity, there’s one show coming up which will be almost sort of posing a mythopoetic of a family story, but very much using sound as a through line for human relations. 

It’s an interesting time, I’ve sort of fallen out of a relationship with the ocular, and I think a lot of people have. For me that was obviously something that came out very acutely, with having children and the sort of after effect of that, and in people constantly wanting to create resemblances, and sort of draw on that. Which, you know, I couldn’t fit into that equation I suppose.  I think that was really the point for me to start tapping into sonic relationality with my child at the time. And so I think that the fact that that Lieu piece was audio, was really cementing that as a path for me to explore, where I haven’t previously explored that mode, but very much in preparation for this show.

Amelia: I’m glad you brought up the audio as opposed to the ocular because I think also what I’m feeling at this moment is a resistance to being in one place, to being seated, to being tied to reading, or tied to watching. So in some ways listening and movement is quite freeing. You know, we’re in momentum, the nature of our conversation is going to be entirely different, because we’re navigating grass and people and helicopters. In the same way, the way I experienced your Lieu Journal piece was through headphones, late at night, while tidying up my house. Listening can afford a really different mode of engagement. But I hadn’t considered that pivot that you speak of about how parenthood might privilege the ocular. 

Abbra: Sound for me became a really playful mode of engagement around that sort of prelinguistic period. I began to investigate things like asemic writing, non-syntactical writing, as a really expressive mode that seemed to connect with where that engagement with my child was at. And it’s really become heightened during Covid, all around us I’ve seen a real uptake of audio engagement. And as you say it sort of encourages movement and encourages a mobility but also a real embodiment I think.

Amelia: Yeah, yeah.

Abbra: But we’ve maybe been over desensitised a little bit with the screen immersion.

Amelia: I like this concept of thick time, because I think what caregivers in particular are experiencing right now is a direct layering, or accumulation, or thickening, of work and responsibility. And the work doesn’t shift away it just thickens and deepens, and again I’m just thinking back to kind of the compost metaphor as well, as these layers of vegetation slowly changing, and accumulating, it’s a process and I think thick time really describes what these last six months are like for caregivers, and… 

Abbra: Absolutely.

Amelia: And particularly trying to maintain a creative process on top of that. We were speaking a little bit before about the walking and the routine of early parenthood, and the nap schedules, and how that routine can give a sense of returning to the same point each day. There’s moments for reflection and there’s moments to recognise points of difference. Walking, or being present with your son, or encountering the same parts of the walk each day, are these things affecting your creative practice would you say?

Abbra: Yeah, yeah definitely. And just sort of coming back to what you were saying about composting, I think so much of [my creative practice] has had to occur for me in my head, it’s sort of a process, a thinking process, which has been really generative out of necessity, but, really, really incredible as far as fostering a routine. I was a bit, I think I was a bit reticent to embrace a walking practice prior to, maybe even to having Kitaj here sort of sleeping, and having that sort of enforce that practice. And so I think coming here has really provided some sort of immersion in nature that I otherwise hadn’t been obviously getting, along with a lot of people, but, also in place of that lack of return, to a space that I’ve been really really needing I think.

Amelia: It’s also setting a boundary or a restriction or rules, and again I’m thinking back to the Lieu piece, and breath work, and setting yourself a task of reciting the text in a whisper, no matter how difficult or impossible that might become. This is not so different, this is the rule that we’re following: speaking and walking.

Abbra: Yeah, it becomes very intuitive. I mean even just then [walking] in and around that field, there’s something very freeing [Amelia: Yes!] in that process.

Amelia: Exactly. Neither leading nor following, just kind of collectively ambling, is really – really enjoyable. We’ve spoken about thick time, we’ve spoken about some things being pushed back to next year, and [how] that creates a drag in the presence as well as this continual extension.  So, are there things about the future that you feel hopeful about? Are there things that, from this moment, these last months in lockdown, these weeks and months of early parenthood, are there things from this that you want to carry into next year and beyond? Or are you ready to break from one mode to the other?

Abbra: You know it’s so hard to know what next year will look like, as far as our particular time and place, but I think a lot of people have been finding a greater [sense] of attention. A slowing down of obviously all the coming and going, which, with a family actually frees up a lot of [time for] attentiveness, even if in the moment that’s sort of being scrambled and pulled in so many directions. It takes a lot of complexity out of the day, and for me I think there’s a bit of a reluctance to return to work, in that we’ve, you know obviously a lot of people really, are really craving a normality, there’s quite a reluctance, and I know for a lot of people there’s more sensitivity to stimulus and to stressful situations that are external to what we’ve been immediately dealing with in our spaces. 

I think it kind of creates a different sense of embodiment, in being in a more localised environment, and I think that’s something that I would really love to retain. Hopefully in balance with whatever the demands are on our movement. So these walks, for example, will be something that I’ll really try to retain as part of my practice.

Amelia: It’s really beautiful and inspiring that you say that… when you speak of an attentiveness that’s come out of this moment, because the dual pressures of caretaking without childcare or school systems or external kinds of support, while also maintaining other kinds of waged work, that can really eliminate an attentiveness, because you can just get so frenzied that you’re just going from one kind of work to another, and never quite remembering to pay attention to either of them.

Abbra: Yeah, so many boundaries slipping constantly.

Amelia: Yeah, so I think I’ll come away feeling quite inspired by that idea of being able to maintain, or find, an attentiveness. For you does it happen beyond walking, or is that kind of the main mode when you’re able to reflect and research?

Amelia: Reading, from what I can understand, has also been a very big part of your practice. Does that feel like a momentary shift that you’ll return to? Or does it underscore your work at the moment?

Abbra: I think it’s central, I mean it’s central to my making practice, as well as obviously my writing practice as its own thing, but I think I’ve really started to think about a lack of hierarchy between these multiple sort of roles, as well as curating and editing. It becomes a methodology I think in terms of breaking down the relations, in terms of being on various sides of those dynamics with others. Like I used to have this tendency of very much separating, but I think… I think because there’s so much overlapping in what I’m working with and what I’m concerned with, so I think writing very much, and linguistics, very much sort of informs my work.

Abbra: I’ve been thinking a lot about the digestive process that is linked with the throat and the mouth. For me that becomes a sort of a continuum, as far as thinking about positioning reading and writing, in language, which is devolving, it’s sort of moving to that next level of investigation.

Amelia: Completely. Sorry I’m disorientated from all our ambling!

Abbra: This is amazing, I don’t often walk through there, it’s what’s so amazing about this process is you really lose… yeah.

Amelia: Yeah.

Abbra: Sorry.

Amelia: No, no no, I’m…

Abbra: Just pausing on that thought.

Amelia: I think it’s… I’m the same, I’m kind of taking some time to process all of the things we’re saying, because I think it’s really rich, and I think also this modality of walking as well is unique, things kind of percolate at a different pace when you’re… 

Abbra: Yeah, yep.

Amelia: …walking, and there’s so much around us too.

[inaudible talking, birds chirping, fades into a whispered voice]

Abbra: [whispered and pre-recorded] [inaudible] … three times between your left thumb and index finger. Pull down your mask, lean over and take a deep breath of the bud. Pull your mask back up. Exhale. It was ecstasy it was sweet air sowing in and all my little alveoli singing away with joy, and oxygen energy coursing through every space and particle of me. A desire for otherwise air than what is and has been given. The annunciation, the breathing out, the strange utterance of otherwise possibility. Caress your breath. Remember, each breath we take is a reciprocal exchange with our surroundings. Remember, on occasion, to give it all away.

Abbra Kotlarczyk is a visual artist and writer based in Melbourne. Her practice is hinged on visual and linguistic articulations of subjectivity, trans-historicism and expanded notions of publication. She has participated in solo and group exhibitions at North Projects (NZ), Bus Projects, c3 Artspace, TCB, Lindberg Galleries (Australia) and AIRY Gallery (Japan). Her essays and reviews have been published by Transgender Studies Quarterly (Duke University Press), Decoy Magazine (Canada), un Magazine and Das Platforms (Australia).