Oral paper, presented September 16, 2.15pm, Whitecliffe Library.

Inline with my process and methodology which privileges storytelling and dialogue above object based formalism, I have invited you to hear my paper in our library, a space to house and care for stories.

Today I will discuss the role of social practice within a feminist framework, building on the idea of Relational Aesthetics, a term coined by Nicholas Bourriard in the 1990s. This is defined by Bourriad as “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.“1

To bring this conversation up to date with contemporary thinkers I draw on critique of Bourriard’s thesis by Claire Bishop. To understand collaborative practice I discuss artists and collectives including Maureen Lander and Mata Aho. I unpack my experience of a visit to The Guerrilla Girls exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, as an encounter with what Bishop might describe as an antagonistic art work. Rather than presenting a utopia or ameliorative moment, an Antagonistic art work may call attention to more disruptive aspects of a community, it may hold or highlight unease, conflict or dissent.2

I foreground my feminism on my reading of Ema Tavola’s PIMPImanifesto, aspects of which she expounded at 2018 AAANZ Conference – Aesthetics, Politics and Histories: The Social Context of Art.3 This document centres relationships and action within our unique cultural landscape, of Aotearoa and the Pacific. I will be discussing some challenges and key moments of an ongoing project, I say a little prayer for you, and it’s various iterations, which include dialogue, collaboration, performance, storytelling and objects. This project is difficult to separate into it’s components, and exists in multiple forms and times, I have some handouts to assist in understanding this work as I discuss it today.

I acknowledge the work and foundation of past feminist movements, I find kinship in a feminism which some commentators have dubbed the Fourth Wave of feminism. While I do not adopt this term myself, this so-called fourth wave includes a diverse and expanding politic with core values I aspire to. Fourth wave feminism embraces an intersectional ideology; based on my readings of bell hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectional feminism can be described as acknowledging the complexities of oppression due to race, colour, class, sexual preference, gender, physical ability etc. Fourth wave feminism can be activated irl and in online spaces, it embraces non-binary, trans and queer sexualities, is sex positive, body positive and includes broader self-defined expressions of ‘woman/women’, generally looking beyond biological evidence of identity. This contemporary feminism is responsive to current events and political situations, like many earlier waves of feminism, there is activism and conversation which cuts across a range of current issues.

Understanding the contemporary feminist landscape is challenging and uncomfortable as the conversations are still happening, changing and evolving. In Swimming Pools and Waves, the Feature Summer edition of Art News New Zealand, 2016, Megan Dunn poetically describes contemporary feminism:

Like recycled water, it includes the movements that have preceded it, and, like the dissection of a wave, it’s very hard to define.”4

Defining this movement is challenging because aspiring to an intersectional feminist framework is an intentionally inclusive and ‘live’ place to be positioned, as conversation and critique are happening both in real life and in social media groups, online discussions and personal communications. I think it is this ‘liveness’ that keeps it responsive and relevant, and therefore challenging to describe.

For the Autumn MFA Seminar, from 20th – 24th of April last year, I invited everyone present to come together in signing a signature cloth, to create an object that would become a document of our group as we gathered. Historically, Signature Cloths have been created in a range different contexts, from public events to intimate social gatherings, usually they are signed in pen or pencil, these marks are then embroidered by an individual or a collective, making the marks more permanent. Sometimes these signature cloths or quilts are brought out and added to at later dates, others are more static.

This signature cloth was my first step into developing an understanding of how to work within a social art practice; a shift of focus from relationships formed or experiences had, social art practice is more dialogical, collaborative and potentially uncomfortable, as it seeks to allow multiple voices and experiences to exit together. This has become a key idea within my work. I also wanted to discover how people engage with an idea, or not. I realised quickly that the signature cloth work required buy-in from me, in actively inviting people to sign the cloth, and that left alone, by me, it would likely be left alone by others. This role as the artist/facilitator is one that has continued and expanded with other projects. It also brought up ethical questions around participation and exchange, and required more critical analysis of what a community may be, and the limits of art and artists. The practicalities of working with others allowed me to explore relationships and develop skills in connecting people with ideas that have meaning for them. It also introduced more complex ways to understand authorship, a concept that I continue to negotiate.

Moving forward, the first collaborative iteration of I say a little prayer for you; gathering material, involved inviting people I know who identify as women to create a self portrait with me. I supplied both materials and instructions, the work was a process which produced a self portrait on cloth, some participants also shared stories related to the process; these stories included feelings and thoughts about make up, identity, performance of the self and feminism. I connected with my participants and my audience via messenger, social media, email and personal communication.

Choosing to privilege the collecting, telling and retelling of stories from people who identified as women, felt like a subtle political act. I was offering to listen to voices that may not otherwise be heard, I accepted and then shared all stories given with me, uncensored. The collective of participants includes, Pakeha, Maori, Pacifica women, women who range in age from 20s to their 60s, many are mothers, many are single mothers. Some resist traditional relationships and lifestyles, some resist labels such as straight, gay, bi or queer, yet all identified with the ways that they as ‘women’ perform their lives and their gender.

With the recent work, I say a little prayer for you; responses, I performed stories collected in this interpersonal process via radio broadcast, inviting my audience to listen to a live performance. This was intentionally a dialogical performance, I read aloud women’s stories and my replies in response. Using my local community station, Beagle Radio, I access a medium that historically, established itself as a means of connection and communication by, and for the people who embraced it. Much like pioneers of community radio in Aotearoa New Zealand, this telling and retelling of stories has the potential to draw people together.5 After the live performance, the work is also accessible in the form of podcasts, further expanding the reach of the project, and staying abreast of current technology and the way that information, stories and voices are shared and heard. It can exist and be experienced by the audience on their own terms, blurring the concept of public and private, this connects with Bourriard’s claim that a relational practice exists in ‘culture at large’, the real world.6 I perform the stories publicly, and my audience can access the work privately, and at anytime increasing the durational quality of the work.

While acknowledging the history of relational aesthetics, my work is more aligned with a social practice, I say a little prayer for you; gathering material, was a collaboration with women. People collaborated as individuals with me, anonymously creating the work. From this process and my correspondence with these women, stories emerged and were shared with me, and I found that bringing people together facilitates sharing of stories as a means of connection. My role as artist, facilitator and author of the project brought with it a sense of care and responsibility for my participants and what they shared. Authorship allows me to both recognise where the heart of the project exists, and to honour the agreement I made with my participants, maintaining a role of leadership based on trust.

The exhibition Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the ‘F’ Word – Feminism! at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, includes reproductions of posters, print material, video interviews and documentation of selected Guerrilla Girls projects.7 I submit that reprints of posters that were pasted up in the streets in cities far from our context here in Auckland, or even Aotearoa are not Art. They are an archive, if one can have an archive consisting of reproductions and not ‘the real thing’. The art the Guerrilla Girls make, happens outside of institutions and on the street, in ‘culture at large’ it engages with real people, and I think this meaning is lost when the work is brought into the gallery context.8 There was, however, one part of the exhibition that I would consider to be ‘art’ from a participatory and antagonistic perspective, and this I will discuss here.

This was a participatory wall, near the end of the exhibition. I found this work problematic; it raised questions for me around ethics of care for participants, and responsibility in social practice, around whose voices are heard, provision for dissent, meaningful exchange and dialogue. The work was a blackboard wall which had the provocation, “I’m not a feminist, but…” inviting participation from visitors, who were able to write a response in chalk and engage in ‘creative complaining’.9 This appears to be a space for dialogue but there seemed to be a lack of responsibility with regards to opening up a conversation in which differing voices could really be heard. It appeared to be unauthored, or collectively authored, and felt more like a token gesture within the exhibition.

Some of these creative complaints:

WE ARE ALL BORN EQUAL AND FREE”, “Being asked to bake a cake. Bake your own fucking cake”, “SMILE”, “LOVE YOURSELF”, “no sex workers without child abuse”, “the mental load done by wives and mothers”, “why send sexy pictures of yourself on insta send smart pictures”, “THERE IS NO ROOM FOR FEMALE MASCULINITY”, “#Iamafeminist”, “SEXIST JOKES”.

I left this work wondering if I was reacting to what Bishop would describe as an Antagonistic Art work? Did this simply present real voices from people engaged in feminism and issues connected with systems of oppression, like class, race, sexism and so on, and did all visitors feel like they could share in the work? When I visited, the gallery provided no information, critique, or feedback into the conversation that was happening on it’s walls.

Taking responsibility for the space created and what is brought to it, is important in my process and the outcomes of my work. Bishop uses Rosalyn Deutsche’s argument to further complicate Bourriard’s position; that all art that includes social relations or encounters that allow dialogue are automatically ‘democratic’, not all voices are equal and real democracy includes “Conflict, division, and instability…”.10 My readings of the PIMPImanifesto, Tavola confirms that “Presence isn’t power; it is too often purely transactional . Social inclusion is genuine power sharing…” this confirms my hunch that real engagement is messy, like real feminism, like social practice, it’s hard to pin down, it shifts and changes with it’s existence.11 And it requires acknowledgement of exclusions that exist in society, and action towards inclusion, this can feel uncomfortable. The same exclusions that exist in the real world are present in the art world and social practice. I saw no evidence of an intention to be socially inclusive in the I’m not a feminist, but…” work.12

Further, few of the messages written on the wall seemed to relate to ideas present in the exhibition regarding women and minorities in the arts; I wondered whether the format for participation enables only a passing response; the Guerrilla Girls take on really important issues, surely the audience could engage more deeply? I suggest that the exhibition content is more relevant to a North American and European context and this wall reflects a disconnect with local and global concerns.

Leaving the exhibition I considered my expectations of the institution and the artists involved, and the gallery’s claim for the exhibition, that it ”…follows the [Guerrilla Girls] artistic practice from 1984 until 2016 and explores how they employ bold, fun and provocative poster art to criticise ongoing biases in art and society.”13 I left the exhibition really wanting more, which gave me pause for thought; I speculate that participatory art works like “I’m not a feminist, but…” may suggest that one’s opinion matters or potential for one’s ideas or comments to be taken on board to make change, whereas in reality it will make no difference at all. The wall could be seen as an empty gesture within an institution unlikely to change any time soon.

Moving into concerns around audience and community, my idea of community is based on meaningful relationships, it takes time for trust to develop among members, it can exist anywhere, in online space and in real life. To create an environment for community to emerge, I focus on fundamental needs, food, comfort, shelter, safety and acceptance, this enables trust and sharing. This is the model I’ve worked with in real life community groups. Reflecting on the overall project, I say a little prayer for you, the community varied, I interacted directly with individual participants; inviting them, answering questions, engaging, I hoped, in an open-hearted way. The work almost became a collective of one on one collaborations between each participant and myself. The only exceptions to this were some participants who decided to make their portraits with a friend, having their own collaborative experience, independent of me. The nature of communications, mostly over Messenger, Text and email required a level of responsiveness and care that I carried alone, without mutual support of another artist or the collective, there were also moments of frustration within the process which may not have arisen when face to face. This way of working was exciting for me, there was interaction and participants embraced the project enthusiastically, however my level of commitment and responsiveness to each participant was very tiring over the duration of the project. Moving forward with I say a little prayer for you, I need to carefully consider how I can shape a more sustainable process.

With I say a little prayer for you, responses the audience is also the community I work with, many of the same people who have participated in the project have reflected back into it, continuing the conversation. These reflections are responsive to seeing the work / objects produced within the project, like the quilt installed at DEMO in June 2019, other responses are via social media, such as messenger, or instagram, publicly as comments and privately via direct message. There is also and audience who have been following my work generally, who message me via text or instagram, to simply say hey I’m listening..’ even if they have not taken part in the process of creating self portrait or story sharing. This places a locus of connection within the relationships I have with my participants, my wider community and friends who support my work, I believe this centres me within the practice and this is where my role as author is clear.

Opening up a project can bring impressive opportunities for learning and expanding a conversation, never the less, this comes with huge challenges not in the least maintaining clarity and focus around the original kaupapa, but in preventing discursive voices to dilute the artist or authors intention. Perhaps this was the case with I’m not a feminist, but…” in the Guerrilla Girls exhibition.14

How do other artists working in collaboration or collectives engage with authorship? The collective Mata Aho, describe themselves as:

“…a collaboration between four Māori women who produce large scale fiber based works, commenting on the complexity of Māori lives…”15

This collective arrangement allows for them to support each other, share responsibility and the labour of making. Mata Aho also speak to intentionally working to maintain a functioning collaboration through communication, and that collective authorship is their strength.16

In an interview with Tim Corballis, Mata Aho describe gathering stories from friends and whanau for Kiko Moana, a project called Taniwha Tales, that seeks to understand the concept of taniwha, and that this gathering informed part of the conceptual basis for the physical work.17 This feels very similar in practice to I say a little prayer for you, gathering material, while Mata Aho created a textile work, and asked for stories, I asked participants to make work and share stories. Mata Aho explain that assembling and sharing multiple voices and stories gives them “…an appreciation for a multiplicity of understandings.”18 A similar collection of multiple experiences, differing views and perspectives is also present in I say a little prayer for you, responses.

Looking at an individual artist who works with groups, Priscilla Pitts interviews Maureen Lander to discuss “…the influence of place on [her] work, her use of materials, and her interest in engaging with local communities.”19

I visited Flat-Pack Whakapapa at Te Uru, in 2018. The process Lander describes is a role of leadership, designing the project, providing instruction, in the form of workshops as well as outsourcing the making of the work to other weavers.20 Then in turn drawing all the work of many hands together in an installation. Lander places value on relationships, stating, that is what interests her, this may be relationships with her materials, her whanau and the various communities she engages to work with her.21 This seems to add a durational quality to the work, not only in the process of making, but that these relationships do not necessarily end when the work ends, there is the sense that the dialogue continues, some of the connections formed may be strengthened, while others may well slip away. With a project like I say a little prayer for you, and it’s iterations, there is potential to push out and expand the duration of the work, as it exists in the objects which are slowly increasing, and the stories as they also increase in number and I continue to read and respond to the work via the community radio station and as podcasts.

As I work more closely with I say a little prayer for you, responses I am conscious of the ethical ramifications and responsibility of working with other people’s stories. I do not want to speak for others, but to provide a platform for differing voices and stories to be seen. Without a transparent process and defining my intention and role within the project, there is the potential to exploit people for source material and stories, specifically with I say a little prayer for you, gathering material making self portraits. Putting a call out for participants in a project like this, there is an opportunity to interpret the contributions of participants to confirm a position, to bypass their intentions to promote my own views.

In conclusion, my practice has become about understanding relationships and expanding the history storytelling within a contemporary feminist methodology. I think it is this ‘liveness’ that keeps it responsive and relevant, and therefore challenging to work with.

While bringing still more questions and space for reflection, I have resourced myself with ways of working, listening and seeing. Understanding more fully the critical concerns of collaboration and exchange has clarified some of my thinking around how I may step into the role of author and performer and when it’s appropriate to work with the physical traces of collaboration and community, such as self portraits collected in I say a little prayer for you, gathering material. Analysing ways communities may function brings me back to seriously considering the value I place on community, and how I might continue to engage with others, my readings of Tavola’s PIMPImanifesto ground my practice in a feminism which relates to where I am, and the communities I work with.22 Bishop’s analysis of Antagonism in Relational Aesthetics describes the practical challenges and discord that may exist in art projects which may reveal unpleasant truths about the art world or broader society, the focus is on thinking more critically about what is happening in a social practice and not avoiding the discomfort.


[1] ‘Activism vs. Antagonism: Socially Engaged Art from Bourriaud to Bishop and Beyond | FIELD’, accessed 3 September 2019, http://field-journal.com/issue-3/activism-vs-antagonism-socially-engaged-art-from-bourriaud-to-bishop-and-beyond.

[2] ibid.

[3] ‘PIMPImanifesto | PIMPI KNOWS’, accessed 2 January 2019, https://pimpiknows.com/manifesto/.

[4] Dunn, ‘Feature Summer 2016 | Art News New Zealand; Swimming Pools and Waves’.

[5] Perkins, Jack. ‘A Stirring Thrills the Air: The Broad Picture 1921-1935’, RNZ, 28 April 2014. Accessed 18 October 2019. https://www.rnz.co.nz/collections/resounding-radio/audio/2593906/a-stirring-thrills-the-air-the-broad-picture-1921-1935.

[6] Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no.110, fall 2004, pp.51-79.

[7] ‘Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the “F” Word – Feminism!’, Auckland Art Gallery, accessed 18 March 2019, https://www.aucklandartgallery.com/whats-on/exhibition/guerrilla-girls-reinventing-the-f-word-feminism.

[8] Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no.110, fall 2004, pp.51-79.

[9] ‘Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the “F” Word – Feminism!’, Auckland Art Gallery, accessed 18 March 2019, https://www.aucklandartgallery.com/whats-on/exhibition/guerrilla-girls-reinventing-the-f-word-feminism.

[10] Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no.110, fall 2004, pp.51-79.

[11] ‘PIMPImanifesto | PIMPI KNOWS’, accessed 2 January 2019, https://pimpiknows.com/manifesto/.

[12] ‘Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the “F” Word – Feminism!’, Auckland Art Gallery, accessed 18 March 2019, https://www.aucklandartgallery.com/whats-on/exhibition/guerrilla-girls-reinventing-the-f-word-feminism.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] ‘About’, Mata Aho Collective, accessed 19 June 2019, https://www.mataahocollective.com/about.

[16] Tim Corballis, ‘Mata Aho: Mana Wāhine in Contemporary Art’, no. 5 (2018): 69–78.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] ‘Maureen Lander: Flat-Pack Whakapapa | Govett-Brewster Art Gallery | Len Lye Centre’, accessed 19 June 2019, https://govettbrewster.com/exhibitions/maureen-lander-flat-pack-whakapapa.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] ‘PIMPImanifesto | PIMPI KNOWS’, accessed 2 January 2019, https://pimpiknows.com/manifesto/.

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