The third space

Susie Anderson in conversation with Clothilde Bullen & Anna Davis


Around the same time I was invited by Anna Davis and Clothilde Bullen to conduct an interview for this catalogue, I picked up a book of poems called False Claims of Colonial Thieves (2018). A collaboration between Yamaji poet Charmaine Papertalk-Green and West Australian poet John Kinsella, it is a collection of call-and-response poems. The poems speak from different perspectives about the same places, incidents and events, revealing often awkward, difficult and confronting responses.

While the whole collection echoes the curatorial collaboration between Anna and Clo for The National 2019: New Australian Art, a poem called ‘Third Space’ became most relevant. It asks where in the national dialogue can complex and confronting yet ultimately change-making conversations be held, with the speaker imagining a physical space for this to happen. This concept of the ‘third space’ was central to our conversation about the selection of artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) exhibition, and we began by talking about how Anna and Clo’s collaboration brought together unique perspectives and experiences to create something that might represent what ‘Australia’ and its cultural expression look like today. (1)

Anna: Early on I kept thinking that a lot of these artists’ works just didn’t fit together. There are connections, but there’s also a lot of disharmony. And then Clo said something like, ‘Look, there’s no assimilation. We are bringing together some really different Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists. Different kinds of practice, different kinds of activism and ideas. We’re not trying to make everything fit neatly together’.

Clo: That’s really indicative of what our national identity represents, an amalgam of non-assimilated cultures and people. We all think we’re this one happy country, but if we just admitted that we’re all different and that’s okay, then we could coexist without having to be homogenous. That was the conclusion we came to when selecting artists.

Anna: And that made sense to me, because it acknowledged our curatorial process as a kind of experimental collaboration within that third space.

Here is the potential. What Clo and Anna have demonstrated in their curatorial approach, and what they have facilitated between artists of varying experience and backgrounds, is a model that could be taken out of the gallery. If the collaboration were enacted beyond gallery walls, what kind of country would we be living in?

Clo: The third space is the grey area where two parts overlap, like a Venn diagram; it seeks not to assimilate but to consider those crossover things that make sense for both people, both cultures or communities. You make it a safe space where you’re able to speak freely, you’re able to meet each other in equity rather than being equal, because they’re quite different things. For me, that’s where we’ve got to with this exhibition. There’s a way that all the artists we selected communicate in equity and have the same presence, with an acknowledgement of difference and that there are going to be power hierarchies. There are things around inequality that need to be acknowledged, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a robust conversation. The third space is a place where interesting and exciting things can happen without saying everything is equal.

Anna: Collaboration is a word that gets bandied about a lot in contemporary art. People love the idea, but it’s also important to recognise the difficulties and power dynamics that come with collaborating.

Clo: What we’re trying to do with the MCA exhibition is say that nothing is more or less than. They’re just different conversations. Where you meet in the middle, and you try to do some of that code switching in the translation, that is the third space.

Carving out and inhabiting space between and outside of binaries, muscling into the grey area between A and B are the practices of artists such as Kaylene Whiskey, Eugenia Lim and Hannah Brontë. Perhaps in 2019 – post-diversity, post–identity politics, post-binary – these, too, are curatorial goals.

Anna: The MCA exhibition has emerged from our research and travels, our knowledge and our coming together. All those things have generated this snapshot of contemporary Australian art. There is, of course, no way that it can be fully representative, except through this particular kind of collaboration that’s happened between Clo and me.

Clo: That’s totally key. This is why it’s turned out the way it has. Because there are not enough of us [Aboriginal curators] in the country, not many people get to work with us. You rarely get to work in a space like this with people from different cultural backgrounds and actually bring something together that is truly representative of where you both come from.

Anna: Doing an exhibition like this, the most important thing for me is allowing a space for experimentation. If everything is fixed and we know exactly what it’s going to be, then I don’t see the point of doing it. Art should involve risk and experimentation, and if you deaden everything, make it fixed, and just put it in a museum ... I can’t think of anything more boring!

Or is this just standard practice? About two years ago it was commonly heard within visual art communities that ‘no conversation is worth having unless it’s a diverse conversation’. So what conversation is worth having now? Here, Anna and Clo have created physical spaces for complex contrasts in experience or points of view. This is, in and of itself, a form of experimentation, played out as a thematic or philosophical choice.

When it is acknowledged that nothing is ‘broken’ or ‘ruined’ by experimentation, there are suddenly possibilities, because the risks are exciting, not just for the curator but also for the artist and, ultimately, the viewer.

Clo: We had a shared openness, lack of prejudice and willingness to explore a shared space. I honestly think that is integral because that’s where your sense of community can build from and grow. Bringing together people willing to jump in and be there in that space.

Anna: And, if anything, that is how this collaboration is representative of The National 2019. We’re embracing chaos and flux and the artists’ ability to try new things. Commissioning artists for the exhibition, you’re working with new projects and you don’t know exactly what they will be, you only have a sense of it. Sometimes I think my job, as a curator, is just to hold on, trust the process and not to lose my nerve. Even working with artists who you know are amazing, there is still a risk involved in that process of coming to a new work. There has to be; you just have to be ready for it.

Imagining the group of artists and their practices as a dialect, they speak a sensory language, an established tone of voice. But what will eventuate is hard to predict. It all fills the third space: vulnerability, with as much time and room as it needs. New voices seep into the gaps, overcome the barriers, strengthen the connections.

Clo: When we started working together, the ideas around hierarchy and power had to be unpacked. Because when you pair a white curator with a black curator, you have to be quite explicit about what that means for both people. I remember, early into this project, we had to meet someone at the MCA café. I didn’t know Anna well at this point, I was still sussing her out. The woman was asking questions about Aboriginal art and Anna was very much sitting back and going, ‘Well, I don’t have any of those answers, but this is where I sit with this’. Not backing off, still engaging in the conversation but just acknowledging it wasn’t her space. And I loved that, because immediately I knew she was alright. A non-Indigenous person should be able to step into this space, instead of saying ‘It’s too hard. I don’t want to deal with it’. Some people shy away from working in these ways because there’s fear.

Anna: They’re afraid, absolutely.

Clo: Because they’re afraid that the things that might come out will make them feel bad about themselves. What I’ve asked Anna to do without being explicit about it, and this is the issue of power, is to meet me in the middle, to go ‘Okay, this is not on. It’s normally always on white Australians’ terms’. She was fearless about it and met me in the fucking middle. Anna was prepared to pull off the layers.

Echoing the practice of her friend and artist Richard Bell, Clo also said during the interview that she was ‘interested in approaching things that are challenging or political, or that promote a particular activist edge’. She explained: ‘I think of myself as an activist first and a curator second’. Combined with Anna’s openness to experimentation, the result is an environment of trust wherein all artists are able to create work in an authentic, autonomous way. For those Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artists in The National 2019, or the artists from migrant or non-white backgrounds, here they may also feel safe to challenge dominant paradigms, to bring them down from within.

The rollcall of the MCA exhibition exemplifies this. Artists’ responses to museological institutions are made visible in performance and interventions by the Adelaide-based Unbound Collective, with their investigations into the archive and subsumed voices of Indigenous peoples, and in the subversive paintings of Mumu Mike Williams, whose practice repurposes colonial objects into banners, reaffirming ongoing custodianship of Country and the history and tensions of landownership.

In this equitable environment, each artist goes beyond the surface level. By pulling back layers, complexity develops across the gallery: interiors of masculinity, as explored by Teo Treloar’s drawings; Julia Robinson’s evocations of female ritual and fecundity through delicate sculptures; video assertions of Asian-Australian identity by Eugenia Lim; and interrogations of intergenerational migrant stories through installations by both Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and James Nguyen.

Approaching this piece, I imagined The National 2019 at the MCA as a selection of artists responding overtly to the thematic of ‘what Australia means’. I was surprised, instead, to be drawn into the collaborative process of the two curators, through which highly considered, political work has occurred to create a ‘third space’. The way is clear for the artists to speak.

that space over there 
will allow us to take off the robes 
and stitch a new robe  
to wear and heal together 

– Charmaine Papertalk-Green, from ‘Third Space’ (2)


(1) The edited extracts reproduced here are based on an interview between Clothilde Bullen, Anna Davis and the author, 12 August 2018.

(2) See Charmaine Papertalk-Green & John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Magabala Books, Broome, WA, 2018, pp.100–101.