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two participatory projects



What’s in a name? This is one of many questions I came across in the path towards this paper. What is in a name, and how can conversation be art?
I’ll be exploring the theory, practice and ongoing outcomes of two projects in relational/dialogical/participative art. The first is the In Memory of a Name project in 2011-2012, which was part of  Edge of Elsewhere’, a four year project in community art practices undertaken by 4A Contemporary Asian Art Space and Campbelltown Arts Centre. As a participant of In Memory of a Name I developed the second project, Nee (Born as). I approach both of these projects from different subjective perspectives: that of a participant, and that of artist.


Led by Indonesian artist FX Harsono, ‘In Memory of a Name’ formed what Miwon Kwon[1] would call a ‘temporary invented community’. We consisted of a curatorium of artists, poets, emerging theorists, curators, social researchers and historians; Harsono introduced us to his own familial background. He described how an exploration of his personal experience grew outwards to become broader research into social and institutional discrimination against Chinese Indonesians, and then returned to a subjective standpoint in in his creative practice.


The familial background Harsono detailed for us was that of a Chinese Indonesian, with strong Javanese influences from grandparents and a formal Catholic education. In accordance with Chinese tradition, Harsono was given the name Oh Hong Bun at birth, a name drawn from his family’s lineage.  In 1966, when Harsono was 18, a Cabinet decree “recommended” all Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent adopt an indigenous name.  A set of historical, political and social factors - too complex to explore here - influenced this decision, which in effect obliterated signifiers of otherness from Indonesian society. Harsono chose to use Franciscus Xavier, his baptismal names, and Harsono, a name he chose in consultation with an acquaintance.   

Since the late 1970s, Harsono has been amongst a cohort of Indonesian artists who have explored and exposed political and social repression in Indonesia. During over three decades of New Order regime, President Suharto oversaw unprecedented economic growth through exploitation of natural and human resources, and consequently created an enormous majority of poverty-stricken citizens underneath a small business elite. Harsono and his fellow artists stood up to expose what was known as KKN, or corruption, collusion and nepotism.  After the fall of the New Order in 1998, many artists hit a creative vacuum.
Harsono turned to his family history to explore the personal intricacies and individual costs of the abuse of human rights during Indonesia’s history. Through detailed social research and documentation, including films and photography, Harsono explores the experiences of Chinese Indonesians. In 2009, in a poetic embodiment of his research and his own experience, Harsono created the performance video ‘Re-writing the Erased Name’.

video
 
The background to Harsono’s practice, and in particular this work, formed the jumping off point for our curatorium to explore the context of naming, name change, discrimination and power in the Australian context.  After the contextual introductions, we began by talking about our own names. Where are our names from; what do they mean; how have they changed and why? What broader issues about name change can we identify from our own experiences?
A key aspect of Harsono’s methodology in his recent practice is ‘social research’, reaching for and listening to other people’s stories. We were set the task of delivering our own ‘case studies.’ With the creative flexibility of the term emphasised we documented our findings in film, narrative prose, spread sheets, dot-points and poetry. Some explored the spiritual dimension of naming, beliefs in the pre-destination of the ‘right’ name. Others talked to migrants and refugees, searching local history records to find tales of alias and mis-spelling, discrimination and even deception.  The topic of naming was surprisingly controversial, many subjects refused permission to have their stories retold, even with anonymity. To change one’s name is sometimes to save one’s life – to reveal how and why might cause death.
My own research into maiden-names swung me from ambivalent, to stridently adversarial, to a state where my personal position was the only clear thing I could lay my hands on.  I had set out to change my surname to my husband’s, and experiment in the bureaucracy of name-change, for art’s sake.  I looked up the stats on name change and was shocked that according to one website 85% of new brides in Australia take their partner’s surname. My resolve wavered – perhaps there was more to my name than just a name? Alongside this I interviewed my mother and sisters and discovered stories I never knew. How my mother had kept her maiden name until bowing to the pressure of her family, who insisted on writing cheques she couldn’t cash until she was Mrs Kent. I asked my children how they felt about my name being different to theirs. My son, just 5 at the time, suggested I change my name to Elly Kent Bolitho. For some reason that hadn’t occurred to me.
 
 I wrote to my grandmother to ask about her maternal line and their maiden names; her reply was fulsome on the paternal line, but she could tell me little after her mother’s mother.
 I spoke to a close friend, who readily took her husband’s name when she married; she gave up her estranged father’s name, a name she no longer shared with any of her family members, from a chapter of her past she was happy to leave behind.  
I decided not to change my name, but I am conflicted about my children having my husband’s name. And my political compass was thrown out by the pragmatism of my friend’s name-change. Perhaps there is no clear answer? Perhaps there doesn’t need to be? 

 
Together and separately, curatorium members  developed proposals for creative work. Responses included bus tours of significant sites, an experiment in creating Indonesian names for participants, a symposium, a radio podcast, a book to activate smartphone apps filled with stories of lost names. With the help of 4A staff and Harsono, proposals were reviewed and discussed, and with great difficulty some were ruled out. Of those which were realised (and you can read more about these on the In Memory of a Name blog) several centred on bringing the experience of the curatorium, and the insight gained through the case studies, into a public space. I too wanted respond by creating a space to generate more of these conversations.

 
In his 1992 essay Conversational Art, Homi Bhabha identifies an anti-epistemological stance in which conversation acts as a dialogue between culture and community, ‘shrinking the distance between the object and the subject and shattering the silence around art objects’. Bhabha writes:
This results in an aesthetic strategy that articulates hitherto unconnected moments between memory and history, revises the traditional divisions between private and public and, rearticulates the past and the present and through the performance of the artwork, fosters unexplored relationships between historical or biographical events, artistic innovations and an enlarged sense of cultural community...... contextual contingency liberates us from a binary and polarised view that opposes reason to passion, the present to the past, it also commits us to living our lives and making our art from experiences that ambivalent, contradictory and unresolved.[2]

 
 
And, so I began Nee (Born as). An invitation to sit, and stitch, and share the stories of names. Starting off from my original case studies I chose to invoke the women’s work of embroidery. But to open up the contingency of the project, to broaden the potential for the unplanned, I moved away from my feminist perspective and asked participants simple to reflect on their own experience of lost or found names. Each participant chose a name to memorialise on a brick sized rectangle of fabric. Each soft rectangle of malleable fabric became part of an unstable, movable memorial wall.
 
Quilted memorials, embroidery as subversion, stitching as contemporary art:  none of these are new ideas. Tracey Emin stitched the ‘names of everyone she ever slept with’ into  a tent, but long before this, jailed suffragettes stitched their names as messages of hope for their comrades outside. The AIDS memorial quilt began in the mid 1980s and its 48,000 plus panels are now being digitally archived – and of course, the tradition of stitching, quilting and weaving as a communal activity is a long and varied one. We can only imagine the cultural shifts and resistance that has been generated over thread and fabric, needle and loom. It is this sense of contingency that I wanted to emphasise in this project; the unpredictable and transformative potential of the conversation. Initially I saw the stitching and the fabric as a means to an end; a way to slow participants down long enough to talk and listen; a point of shared experience for participants, who were sometimes acquainted, sometimes strangers. Making was an ice-breaker; what fabric will you use, what colour thread, whose name will you stitch? At first, the inherent value of the project was in these conversations that followed. But the object began to take on a life of its own.


I conducted the first iteration of Nee  in my garage/studio. Already participants began to affect the object and concept. They brought fabric a little too large or small, for my imagined bricks. Small children who couldn’t write stitched abstract compositions. By the second iteration, at 4A Gallery one Saturday in February, I was learning how integral to the concept the flexibility of fabric was. I was reminded that not all script travels horizontally.  


But oh, what conversations we had, sitting, stitching!
What sadness, to hear that this is a ritual of grief, of grief for her father, recording his name in clear black Korean script, on the auspicious 49th day after his death.
How curiously unlike his English name his Greek name sounds.



How wonderful that she stitches the comedic name she was given in-utero, whilst her own unborn child rolls inside her belly.
How defiantly he stitches the name he rejected, when as a 5yr old he told his teacher his name was Pedro, NOT Peter!
Name change may seem banal, but through the prism of names we expose a wide range of challenging discourses. Through our conversations about names we traced discrimination, power relations, gender stereotypes, domestic and social violence, the negotiation of identity, familial interaction and assimilation of the other.


In my studio practice, I try to create works that open up liminal space – juxtaposing imagery from the mundane elements of life into images and patterns of implied exotica. It’s a way to emphasise the transformative potential of being in-between one state and another. The work of Neé, the work of conversation, placed me in that liminal space, over and over:  the space in between idea and object, between personal and political, between narrative and document. It was not a space of exhortation, nor a place to negotiate a consensual representation. It was a space to step out into, to listen, to see what happened next.

It may seem naïve of me, but I had not expected the physical object that resulted from these conversations to become so precious. The value of the fabric wall is created by the time and emotional commitment that participants invest in its creation. It was no longer a point of conversation, but a tangible record of memory and story, relationships and loss.
In the last iteration of Née (Born as) to date, at Casula Powerhouse near Liverpool, artist Ray Beattie brought a tiny white singlet with several small flowers already machine stitched on to it. Over the course of the evening, Ray added letters spelling out Boitran, the name of his beloved wife who had died only months before. He shared their life, love and art stories. With us were three young university students, cousins recalling childhood nicknames on old pyjama fabric; we giggled and grieved in turn.
Clifford Geertz has said that through, long acquaintances with extremely small matters, the anthropologist confronts the same grand realities that others - historians, economists, political scientists, sociologists - confront in more fateful settings: Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Passion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, Prestige; but he confronts them in contexts obscure enough...to take the capital letters off them. These are all too human constancies…..But that is exactly the advantage. There are enough profundities in the world already. Perhaps this says something for artists too. [3]
So it will go. Stories about love, politics, oppression, acceptance, rejection, migration, loss, identity, family; a wall that holds but does not contain them.  We have learned a little of what is in a name.

 

 

 


1998.



 







[1] M. Kwon, One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity  (The MIT Press, 2004).


[2] HK Bhabha, "Conversational Art," in Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art, , ed. Mary Jane Jacob (MIT Press, Massachusetts

1998).


[3] C. Geertz, "Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture," in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books Inc, 1973). p.21

 

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