by Dr. Leslie Morgan
American writer William Faulkner’s oft quoted line from Requiem for a Nun (1950) ‘the past is never dead, it is not even past’ has been used by many, including the then Senator Barack Obama, in his speech ‘A More Perfect Union’ (2008). In it he calibrated the history of racism and disadvantage in the USA. America’s racial history, along with Australia’s Indigenous, colonial and migrant past, are threads taken up by Talkback.
Talkback is a hybrid arts installation that aims to explore the intersections of race and identity. It features interviews with sixty-six Americans and Australians, including prominent artists, who discuss aspects of their histories and aspirations. The project seeks to encourage dialogue about belonging, blackness, whiteness and intergenerational continuity and change. The exhibition features the work of Tania Ferrier, Laura Mitchell and Leslie Morgan supported by technician Alan Thompson. Collaborators in photography include James Kerr, Yulissa Morales and Mirla Jackson.
Talkback is designed as two main spaces: a gallery reception area, and a larger exhibition space, separated by a curtain. The anterior space is a lit area that greets the viewer on arrival. It consists of a ‘research room’ by Morgan, comprising collages that provide the viewer with contextual information for the exhibition together with additional light-box works by Kerr, Morales, Jackson, Mitchell and Ferrier. Housed next door is a studio where artists and the public can collaborate for the duration of the residency. The main part of the exhibition comprises Ferrier’s video projections enhanced by Mitchell’s typography and rope lights that play on, and extend, meaning to the multi-media installation.
The American interviews in Talkback were conducted towards the end of President Obama’s first term in office in 2013; in these, aspiration emerged as a dominant theme. The Australian participants reveal a similar preoccupation with race and identity, albeit one that is shaped by our history of colonialism and the White Australia Policy. In both sets of interviews the notion of belonging is highlighted, as it is performed on a daily basis by many who considered themselves ‘othered’ in an often hostile terrain of bigotry and exclusion.
Within the video collage, Ferrier includes still photographs of her interview subjects framed in an oval shaped, moulded picture frame. This literal frame is emblematic of Ferrier’s recognition of her subjects as active participants who insist on their right to belong. It also plays on the discourses of early anthropological photography, the positionality of the ethnographer and her subjects, thereby challenging the colonial gaze.
The collaboration of artists with different histories working on the same story to articulate different perspectives in various media is integral to the vision of the work. The artists share an interest in social justice and their critical approach is shaped by the discourses of race, class, gender and disability, and the ways in which palimpsests of the past and its residues remain. Ferrier’s recent video practice has been concerned with Western Australian Indigenous history and her multi-media work has been enhanced through the collaboration of Mitchell, an American born artist and designer, who brings an awareness of the multidimensional ways in which exclusion works. Morgan, an Anglo-Indian migrant in Australia with an interest in diaspora and migration, contributes a series of paper collages that reflect and inform the installation.
A consistent thread in the creative methods used is that of collage, a method which allows the viewer entry and exit points that serve to extend and elaborate ideas. Once used by modernist artists as a destabilising force to decentre reality, collage operates here in the semiotic play between typographic forms that zoom in and out, from the image, which is masked then revealed. Significantly, the gaps and ruptures of collage, in the form of video, text, light and paper, act as a productive metaphor to centre and construct new meaning. In this, Talkback speaks through its form as much as its content; it insists that the gaps and absences in representation are as important as the threads of narratives because they allow the viewer entry points that can suggest new questions and further possibilities for the visual representation of the struggle to belong and assert identity, through stories wrought from trauma and resilience.