Runway Journal has partnered with All Conference to present a series of Conversations from its network of artist-led, experimental and cross-disciplinary arts organisations around Australia. Throughout the year, 16 organisations will each present a new piece on Runway’s Conversations platform.
The eighth Runway Journal x All Conference Conversation comes from Watch This Space, situated on the unceded land of Mparntwe/Alice Springs.
Watch This Space's Beth Sometimes reflects on institutional challenges in the context of Marlene Rubuntja's exhibition Looking Back, Moving Forward (Watch This Space, 11 Sep – 3 Oct 2021).
As artist run initiatives and creative institutions across the many-Countries of this continent scramble to subjugate their own proliferating whiteness and be more relevant institutions to their locations and histories, Watch This Space ARI, on Central Arrernte Land, is operating among a divergent set of forces from our cousins in the south east. We are geographically located amidst a vast network of Aboriginal run art centres and dealer galleries, all specifically supporting the production of First Nations creative content, primarily for market. The irony is that Watch This Space was created in the 1990s in the specific context of a lack of exhibition space for experimenting white artists and their audiences. But this is no reason to stay thus governed, and in an attempt to be less white we must ask, what can Watch This Space do that is distinct?
Local Arrarnte artist Marlene had the most recent exhibition here in the Watch This Space gallery Looking back, moving forward - an energetic collection of soft sculpture landscapes, paintings on paper and prints. This conversation weaves thoughts from her, Arrernte grandmother, language and cultural worker and WTS studio resident Kumalie Kngwarraye Riley; Arabana,Wuthathi, and Mualgal woman and Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at MAGNT in Darwin Rebekah Raymond; co-director/caretaker at Watch This Space and film-maker, Charlie Freedman; and me, Beth Sometimes, a studio artist at Watch This Space and locally based Pākehā artist, interpreter and language worker.
I’ve long been interested in how Watch This Space might support forms of First Nations led or collaborative creative practices that are inherently anti-market, non-commodifiable, experimental and otherwise to what exists in saturation. I’m wondering if this desire (for white people) can function as a kind of conceit, how we openly erode the conceit of inclusion and move toward being moved, make ourselves available to be permeated and altered from within? My own position against settler-capitalism is much informed by many years of intimate experiences of its effect on Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte lives.
Is Watch This Space’s position also thus? If so, where are the positions of mutuality that are not us inflicting our idealism and enthusiasm for unpaid labour on people living in poverty? My belief in income as a sustainable solution to poverty waxes and wanes. It is a vital material argument in the present that people get paid, (and more and properly), but is ultimately just propping up the same extractive system which generates the poverty. Thinking economics in relation to the societies who have sustained and co-created among the most arid conditions in the world is a boom and bust exercise. How could our practices be defective for capital? How do we mobilise the middle class froth of this art world to caffeinate subversive activity?
Opening of Marlene Rubuntja's exhibition Looking Back, Moving Forward, 2021. Photo by Martina Capurso.
I acknowledge to Rebekah over lunch in Darwin that to speculate about these possibilities from my position alone is somewhat meaningless and she articulates that of course cultural safety can only be measured by the community. In a meeting to continue processes in addressing our lack of First Nations governance involvement Kumalie Kngwarraye Riley expressed how before she came to know this place by way of entry, she would drive past or peer in the windows assuming it was a place for whitefellas. As we begin to discuss how Watch This Space might be more useful for local people she talks extensively about her work with the Strong Grandmothers Group, patrolling the streets of the CBD at night, chatting with young people and intervening in interactions between them and the police. She talks about the painters selling their canvas in the streets. We examine what Watch This Space could possibly do that other organisations are not specifically funded for, interrogating where the political allegiances are between how we do things and a diversity of local First Nations positions. With many of the invitees to our next meeting coming from language backgrounds other than English, we must adjust the timbre of our discussion and be led by those coming in to make it available.
Kumalie is in permanent residence at Watch This Space since her former workspace was converted without warning to be a covid facility. She hosts us from within, offering a welcome in Arrernte and English for most openings and events these days. She consistently and generously takes time to speak with artists about their work, weaving in affinities she observes between what they are working with and matters of local significance. A memorable recent welcome was her acknowledgement of Lucreccia Quintanilla’s show Our Voices Together Bouncing Off The Walls picking up on the resonances of Lulu’s Mayan ancestors echoed through the sound works and wall squiggles to acknowledge the echoes of Arrernte ancestors humming eternally in this land. Objects, at their best, generating a citrus hum through the assembly in their midst.
These Countries do not have a scarcity of story, song or record of violences done. The issue is in the listening apparatus, the ability to process various utterances as meaningful and generate appropriate responses. Paying attention to the sound around this space, the languages that conversations are hosted within might tell us something about how we’re going with the endeavours pointed to by this article. Last week a group of us were recording sentences for a picture dictionary for Akarre - a dialect of northern Arrernte. The Akarre speakers busily discussed Marlene’s show in Arrernte and Akarre as we sat having our lunch break. What local poetics vibrate through the space?
I would speculate that Watch This Space has acquired collective knowledge that ‘harmony’ is characteristically something that white people like to steer, in order to maintain certain existing power relations. In a town and a country raw and rupturing with trauma it is also imperative that we are in the business of creating joy. A distinction between the raucous peel of joy and the flaccid persistence of harmony is worth attending to.
Beth Sometimes is a Pākehā artist, interpreter/translator and language worker from Aotearoa living in Arrernte Country. She works with Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara people across different projects, collaborating to invigorate language and song knowledge. She is interested in language care, land care and attempting relations that defy the settler-colonial project.
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