Liberate our Lights
I have always been interested in protest and political art. Last year I walked 700 km across Spain to complete the Camino de Santiago. Whilst I walked, I took photos of public art and graffiti. There was initially the Basque and Spain duelling public art and graffiti, which was clearly edited and replaced in a passionate political dialogue. Someone who had disturbingly written 'feminism is cancer' along the trail, and this had been edited throughout The Way too - once by myself, adding my name to a feminist chorus. There were also examples of lovely, quite poetic public dialogue along the way.
I love looking at the collection of Suffragette art at the NGV and seeing how colour, song and motif all helped reinforce and codify the Movement. I am also inspired by the ideas of Art with a little ‘a’, art for the people, arte povora, the social realists and the political printing of Australian print studios Red Hand Printing originally from Darwin, and Megalo in Canberra, over the years. Some say that art can’t change the world, but I think it can definitely help. Liberate of Lights is a project to test bed this.
This year I have been inspired by the activist art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles took art to the street to raise awareness of the unrecognised maintenance work of women and other minorities. In 1973, for eight hours, she publicly washed the stairs of Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum museum to make comment on who was allowed into the museum and for what purpose. In 1983 she fitted a garbage collection truck with mirrors which reflected the citizens of New York City as it drove around their streets. Her work speaks about ideas relating to feminism, labor and value. In her chapter 'Deconstructing Aesthetics - Orientating towards the Feminine Ethos', artist Suzi Gablic writes how Ukeles' work knitted with the community and empathetically communicated with her audience to transform ideas. I would also like my work to orient towards the 'feminine ethos'.
Similarly interesting is German conceptual artist Hans Haacke, who since the 1960s has produced controversial work, often exposing systems of power and influence. His landmark work of institutional critique, Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 chronicled the fraudulent activities of one of New York City’s largest slumlords over the course of two decade. His work was so poignant that the show was cancelled in 1971 before it was even opened.
I have also been inspired by many feminist contemporary artists. Casey Jenkins received attention in 2013 for her performance piece Casting Off My Womb, where she knitted a scarf over 28 days from wool held in her vagina. Artists Sophia Wallace and Alli Sebastian Wolf have also created debate about feminist issues in their work relating to the clitoris pride.
After watching the film 9 to 5 at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year, I was inspired by the women who campaigned for the working conditions of secretaries in the 1960s. The recent Australian Centre of Contemporary Art short film Imaging AIDS reviewed the groundbreaking 1994-1995 exhibition Art in the Age of AIDS. It showed how art could help change minds and give voice to the powerless.
Stuck at home during the Melbourne lockdown, I really wanted to throw my pent up energy at a worthy cause.
My sister Andreana says that Equal Crossings is a campaign that found us.
The catalyst of the campaign was that each day, when my five-year-old daughter Imogen and I walked to her kindergarten, she would be angry about there being a red and green man at the pedestrian lights and the fact that there were very rarely girls represented. We had discussions about it maybe being a woman in pants, but it seemed clear to Imogen that the intent of the generic figure was that it was meant to represent a man. I couldn't help but agree. After three or so months of continued anger, I encouraged Imogen to write a letter to the City of Yarra council to ask for change. She did:
After that Andreana asked Imogen and I if she could make a petition supporting her letter. The online petition we started raised hundreds of signatures in a couple of weeks. It was clear that there was an appetite for change. We decided to get a group of friends together to agitate for local change, posturing a campaign around the City of Yarra local elections in November.
Hence Equal Crossings grew organically from Imogen's idea. It is a locally based campaign to create equal pedestrian crossings in the City of Yarra and then hopefully across Victoria. You can see more at www.equalcrossings.org
Political action works in two ways: legislative and performative. Art is part of performative action. My project will work to part of this performative action, broadcasting ideas of gender equality and equal representation in public spaces across the City of Yarra. Our group is also doing legislative work to agitate change, but this blog won't cover this.
Interestingly, I am watching the US elections as I write this blog today. We are also awaiting the election results for the City of Yarra, whereby we will see if the candidates who pledged to support Equal Crossings were voted in this month. Further, next week the RMIT Print Studio votes to see if I am elected into the Open Bite Executive Team! I feel fully immersed in the theme of politics and art as I write!
Due to COVID 19 and the subsequent lockdown I am confined to the home studio and restricted to hand printing and lo fi techniques. I had been excited about exploring screenprinting at the RMIT studio which would have been a far more technical introduction to the art form, but without that being a possibility, I decided to try it at home.
Here are some of my concept and image explorations from my visual diary:
I bought a lo fi home screen printing kit and given the mass production idea of a protest art, I used my daughter's A4 craft paper pad. The bold colours were perfect for eye catching poster work, and the fact that it was children's craft paper linked nicely to the fact that the campaign was instigated by a child. I experimented using only red and green traffic light colours but soon ran out of those coloured papers. I had to diversify the colour range, but then again, that linked nicely to the concept behind the campaign; that there should be diversity in all of its range in public spaces. I tried printing on white, but I liked the vibrancy of the block colours that seemed also to suggest the bold colouring of election and protest art.
I experimented with a number of stencil images and enjoyed adding symbols that related to the campaign: pedestrian crossing stripes, the two circle lights, a walking figure in a dress. The stencils I used were deliberately chunky, simple and bold to reinforce the protest art aesthetic, the child-led elements, and also because I was completely new to screenprinting and needed to keep the stencils robust and achievable at home. I experimented using stencils made of hand cut yuko and waxy tracing paper, rubbish, and packaging from the screenprinting kit that I found - which perfectly replicated the shape of a pedestrian light.
I also tried making PVA stencils. The PVA stencils were an interesting idea of artist Deb Williams'. I thickly spread old PVA onto a plastic lid, left it to dry over a number of days, and then peeled the dried PVA disc away, making an organic soft stencil shape. The circle was used for the symbology for a traffic light, but I felt the mottled look reminded me of a moon surface. I wasn't sure how much I liked the softer variated aesthetic. Slowly the PVA disc broke down in the printing process, and whilst it was an interesting experiment, I didn't feel I would continue the softer, mottled look.
Whilst making, I reflected on the process of print and the sense of touch screenprinting evoked. In a touch deprived Melbourne, I had a five-year-old who had an insatiable appetite for cuddles, and needed nurturing during the pandemic more than ever. Like motherhood, screenprinting at home is a visceral, intensely physical and rather messy process. The studio got overtaken by prints as I laid them over every flat surface to dry. In the same way, the campaign began to take on a life of its own, and take over my life a bit too! I became a little obsessed with checking on the growing signatures linked to the petition, following the online communication the campaign inspired around the community, and putting up our flyers and stickers around the neighbourhood.
I experimented with double printing the artworks to create a more complex image. There were some really interesting outcomes here but I ultimately preferred the simplistic look of the single layer of ink.
I wanted text to be incorporated into this piece. I have spent some time studying the work of
Sister Corita Kent, a Pop Artist nun in the 1960s who used her screenprints to rail against poverty, sexism and other injustices. I love how she incorporated words to ensure that her message was always understood and so people were not intimidated by art. She also sold her art very cheaply, preferring that all people could afford her work and believing that art can change the world for the better. I also aspire to make art with soul and substance.
Similarly, I love the way Jenny Holzer uses words in her public space art to agitate change. She created this recently during the US election campaign.
So once the screenprinting was done I experimented with adding text in different computer fonts, handwritten, and in different locations on the posters. I ended up choosing 'American Typewriter' font because it seemed the most 'lo fi protest' in style and it saved me doing as much hand writing.
After that I felt there needed to be even more subliminal messages put into each poster. I selected a number of quotes and comments left on Imogen's petition. I felt that these voices added to the aspect of community and diversity, and reflected the nuances of the debate in words where images somehow fell short (ie regarding non-binary representation and the cost neutral aspect of the project). I attributed each of the quotes to the person who said it in order to add extra political weight. It was terrific that so many of the candidates gave us quotes to use on the Equal Crossings score cards, and these were a strong addition to the array of quotes from the public petition. I experimented with different pens because not all of the white pens made a bright enough line.
Wanting even more messaging in the work I decided to spell out the words 'liberate our lights' in an effort to unify all of the pages together. I thought of cutting out the shapes of each letter into a screenprinted page. I also tried using plain white cartridge paper stuck onto the colourful pages to make the letters. I'd run out of coloured paper by this stage, and due to COVID restrictions on retail, I couldn't easily get more.
I then realised I could make the letters out of the campaign working sheets. These working sheets were covered in maps and campaign instructions for the Equal Crossings volunteers. The lettering and map sections gave another layer of interest and assimilated the ideas of community and a sense of place. After experimenting I also signed each poster in white pencil on the bottom right. I wanted each poster to both stand alone as a seperate artwork but also be part of the greater work.
Here are some of my experiments:
And here is a selection of the final posters:
I needed to count out the pages and letters and ensure that the layout was cohesive and harmonious. This took a little tinkering, but I was eventually pleased with the result. Later when I installed the project in the window of Motley Bauhaus, I needed to adjust the layout again, and I ended up having some posters leftover. I realised I couldn't be too prescriptive with the layout of the final installation, nor did I want to be. The idea was that the pages lay where they belonged in an array that represented the chorus of voices and diversity of a community. Too much calculation didn't seem to align with how the campaign organically unfurled.
I was fortunate to have my friend, photographer Michelle Ferreira, help me with the Motley Bauhaus installation. The previous artist had left vertical stings and pegs up from her installation, and this was really helpful in our arranging the posters. We couldn't centre the work completely, and the layout evolved as we placed colours away from each other for a variated look. We paused to reflect on the look from the other side of the glass and to buy more wooden pegs.
We liked the way the light shone through the paper and had a stain glass window effect from the inside. Overall it was a really fun installation, and it was great to see people stop and look at what we were doing. In a way it became a performance piece because we were on display in the front window - the interior of Motley Bauhaus being closed due to COVID. Now when I walk past I love seeing my work there, and love showing it to Imogen. It is amazing for her to see so many people in the artwork reinforcing her voice.
The installation has been in place at Motley Bauhaus for a couple of weeks now, and on 15 November I will install it at St Andrew's Church in Fairfield with my artist friend Pearl Taylor as part of church's COVID window displays. Once this installation is over, I plan on sending the posters to different people in the community. Equal Crossings allies and candidates that end up being elected, and some of the people whose voices are represented on the posters.
In addition to this completed screenprinting artwork, Equal Crossings, with the amazing design work of campaigner and artist friend Soile Paloheimo, made printed posters and stickers. The purpose was to plaster City of Yarra with stickers and posters in the month before local elections in order to raise awareness of the campaign. It was a race to get the posters, stickers and website completed to align with when the final candidate list was to be released. It also took a while to complete the list of candidates who pledged to support the campaign. Approximately two thirds of the candidates did, which is fantastic.
Once we had the 1000 posters and 1000 stickers printed, we divided them into the 13 sectors we made across the City of Yarra, and allocated them to the volunteers who had promised to help out. Imogen and I had made Light Changer Equal People biscuits (colourful gingerbreads with dresses or pants, in all shapes and sizes) decorated paper bags. During COVID I've been making big batches of marmalade, and I labeled the jars with collaged campaign posters and stickers. These were all done to thank our Light Changer volunteers and supporters.
The process of posting the posters and stickers around the City of Yarra was interesting. Many of us were well supported and encouraged as we roamed the streets of our community.
However, some of us also found that the patriarchy fought back in nasty ways as well. And interestingly, there were many faces of the patriarchy represented in the push back. Many of the posters were aggressively torn down and the stickers scratched off. But Rebecca saw a dignified well dressed man in his 60s calmly removing the posters she'd put up in her local park. One poster was graffitied in brazen red niko marker. Michelle was confronted by a strange and looking dangerous man who creepily followed her and her little son, telling them it was a 'man's world'. It was funny and sad to see that you could have a missing pet bird poster up but our campaign message was edited out of the dialogue of posters.
I found myself having a range of emotions as I did the postering work. Maybe I'd have not been as affected if the posters had not had a picture of my daughter on them. However, I had a number of dreams where the patriarchy physically hurt me and that male police and the patriarchal courts were biased against me when I sought protection. I also dreamed of being publicly shamed by the patriarchy as pay back for exercising my voice. I noticed that I felt really uncomfortable when putting up the posters when there we men around and I actively avoided them sometimes, sensing it was a little unsafe.
It certainly felt like the chipping away with our icepicks was deeply emotional and important work. The Herald Sun ran a neutral article on our campaign and 3AW Neil Mitchell interviewed Andreana. It was clear Neil didn't think that there was a problem with sexism in Australia and that he represented a number of conservatives who thought the same way. It was both really confronting and also completely unsurprising.
Some of the people who promised to put posters up for us ran out of steam for a number of good reasons. Someone thought it was against the law and decided not to help. I ended up personally walking miles and taping hundreds of posters up myself, and as some were seen to be ripped down, my taping got more and more aggressive. It was cathartic having a physical outlet to this process. In response, some of my hard taped posters were knifed down. One sticker was slashed off with a knife and Vic Roads replaced the whole label for that traffic light post. The work was definitely provoking.
At this time we ensured that we had regular meetings and chats for support. The 2017 Melbourne Committee Equal Crossings team offered their help. Individuals financially supported us. Some small businesses put a poster in their window and promised to disseminate them for us. Many of the candidates were super supportive and it was moving to read their pledge comments. It was a relief that unlike Neil Mitchell, most of the candidates didn't need us to explain why the campaign existed. Imogen and I made friends with some of the amazing people who ran for the local election. Andreana, Imogen and I made a short film we tied in the campaign.
Then postal elections closed and we waited for the results. It is a relief to walk around and be cheered when I see posters and stickers still up, and not care anymore when they aren't there. It wasn't the point that the posters stayed up forever. The traffic on our website and the petition numbers grew and we started to celebrate our wins thus far and think about the second stage of our campaign.
Just now we have found out that the City of Yarra has elected seven out of nine Equal Crossings pledge signers! And one of the remaining candidates seems cool and likely to come around. Hopefully the last one comes around! In any case, this is an incredible win for our efforts and means that there is an excellent chance that by 2024 there will be Equal Crossings in our local area!
In the meantime, Biden / Harris have won the US election! Change is afoot.
I have loved this project! It's exhilarating to take back the power and use art as a way to activate change. It has been wonderful to support Imogen and her ideas, and to work alongside such inspirational change makers. Liberate our Lights and stay tuned!