If this exhibition were a text

On a weekend coinciding with the Melbourne Art Fair juggernaut, I emerged from the swirling crowds inside the hotel Windsor’s smaller iteration. After hours spent jostling for a momentary patch of spectating territory at both art fairs, this admittedly felt like a minor desertion. Making the walk to Smith Street, Fitzroy, I was hoping to revive my dampened optimism in experimental, ambitious art practices; a preceding chance encounter with writer and artist Helen Johnson had appealed to my curiosity. Amidst the bustle, she had urged me to visit SLOPES, a non-profit, curator-run space whose mission is to foster experimentation and artistic development. The last performance featured as part of If this exhibition was a text was scheduled that afternoon, the 16th of August 2014, and would offer an invigorating, alternative morphology of the group exhibition format. Given the fact that the SLOPES gallery space is slated for demolishment at the end of the year, it was perhaps the perfect venue for a show wholly invested in transience, fluidity and dematerialization. By its very nature, such a slippery beast is difficult to capture and quantify through any means, including that of a retrospective text. Therein lies the adroit irony of curator Ash Kilmartin’s intriguing exhibition, reflected within the project’s title itself.

Taking my place among approximately forty other attendees clustered around the SLOPES back entrance, I rapidly realized that my understanding of If this exhibition was a text was already condemned to incompletion. Configured as an ongoing stream of multimodal correspondence between international collaborators, the exhibition operated as a kind of generative dialogue. Not all of it has been documented, privileging the live and momentary presence. Having not attended prior, I hadn’t seen Eliza Dyball’s work for the opening night only, nor the two performances of choreographer Adva Zakai’s Regarding Yesterday (2005-2013) on the 2nd and 9th of the month. I would have to receive the third, final production of the piece without such convivial introductions to the large list of other contributors, including Liz Allan, Georgina Criddle, Helen Grogan, Laura Preston, Pip Wallis, and Clare Wohlnick. In curating the show, Kilmartin draws comparisons to her own interests, describing this as a practice in perpetual motion. “I did not wish the exhibition to be too hierarchical, and the other invited artists were not expected to respond to Adva’s work, only the structure, context and conditions of the exhibition… one that could be altered and changed throughout. To me, the text works had the potential to influence the performance and reception of Regarding Yesterday, as much as the other way around.”(1)

As we filtered inside, I noted a number of these texts affixed to the walls, ranging from spatial observations, a chemical composition list of a cocktail, and what appeared to be handwritten choreographic annotations. Beyond the eponymous concrete slope, our plastic seats were oriented to face a makeshift stage, replete with unfussy black floor mats. However, none of these observations could sustain my attention for long: Melbourne based performer Deanne Butterworth was standing in front of us, her countenance arranged into a steely, distant stare. Bare feet planted in an imposing stance, Butterworth’s poise disclosed her background as an accomplished dance artist. Bedecked in jeans, a purple top and fluffy black arm warmers, it seemed possible that this version of Zakai’s Regarding Yesterday might involve some form of sombre, confrontational aerobics class. It turns out that my fleeting initial thought wasn’t so far off the mark. As the entranced, immobilizing silence settled over the audience like a bronze cast, Butterworth became its complete antithesis. Beginning with minor weight shifts, her hips swayed laterally, oscillating with a rising amplitude as the minutes slid greasily by. My own breathing, suddenly so audible in the quiet, acquired a heightened resonance in Butterworth’s exertions. With her increasing stream of audible grunts and laboured gasps, the performer’s motions escalated with a slightly alarming violence. After around fifteen minutes of this, all four of Butterworth’s flailing limbs ceased their ataxic convulsions. As her arms commenced a steady, rhythmic flapping, I was lulled into a sense of comfort and stability. A pause; a collective exhalation of sorts, from both the performer and her captivated audience. Then, with enough decibels to send a primal shock of adrenaline through my system, Butterworth emitted a piercing scream. With this abrupt catharsis of explosive noise, Regarding Yesterday dissolved the dynamics of a composed, singular performer before her passive audience. As described by Jon Erickson, this was a moment of coercive resistance, the instant of theatrical tension and release that reconfigures temporal experience.(2)

If this exhibition were a text, 2014. Performance as part of the group exhibition, 2 August 2014. SLOPES Gallery, Melbourne. Photo credit: Eliza Dyball

Time seemed to accelerate and the rest of the choreography flashed past, veering into what seemed like a bizarre martial arts caricature (complete with comical “hee-yahs!”). Shaken from my lethargic expectations of narrative and order, I braced myself for further aural assaults. However, the work continued to defy prediction. Rising from her resting position on the floor, Butterworth conversationally asked, “Who would like to give a title to this piece?” It seemed that most of us did; both tentative and outrageous suggestions were offered up from the newly activated audience, including ‘Spastic Rage’, ‘Fluffy Percussion’, and rather tellingly, ‘Art Fair Fatigue.’ Recruited into the work as collaborators, we learned that titles from previous audiences would in turn inform a future version, a kind of suspended proposition to be performed again at unspecified place and time. There seems hardly time to contemplate our newfound complicity within this exchange, and the lights were switched off. Fellow Melburnian dance artist Atlanta Eke joined Butterworth at the front, and a text was passed around. In the gloom, I discern the phrase ‘dog practice’. A strange, ritualized dialogue ensued, interspersed with barks and mournful howls (presumably, the dog practice) between the two women. As mysterious plastic bags were lowered from the ceiling, the weird pathos of a theatrical music score marked the close of the performance and our cue to depart. Opaque in some aspects, challenging yet participatory, If this exhibition was a text became a singular experience for me. Even now, it continues to reconfigure itself anew, subject to the embellishment of remembrance. The following day I received an email from Kilmartin and Butterworth declaring that the work be entitled ‘Matrix’. (3) Remembering both the dystopian sci-fi classic and also the nature of multifarious, interconnected systems, I felt this was a fitting choice. If nothing else, this work exemplifies Claire Bishop’s assessment of performative potential: a simultaneously disturbing and pleasurable experience that enlarges our capacity to imagine our world and our relations within it.(4)


1. Ash Kilmartin, email correspondence with the author, 1st September 2014

2. Jon Erickson, ‘Tension/release and the production of time in performance’ in Archaeologies of presence art, performance and the persistence of being, Gabriella Giannachi, Nick Kaye and Michael Shanks (eds.), Routledge, London, 2012, pg. 85

3. Ash Kilmartin, email correspondence with the author, 17th August 2014

4. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, Verso, London, 2012, pg. 284