INTERVIEW WITH ABBRA KOTLARCZK

You grew up in Mullumbimby, a small town of around 3000 people near Byron Bay.  In the 1970s and 1980s it was a hub of alternative culture. What was it like growing up in this environment?

The whole area has a reputation for what happened after the Age of Aquarius, with the hippy migration. That’s when my parents arrived there, in the seventies. I don’t know the specifics, but I think there was a big festival in Nimbin that brought a lot of people, and a lot of them stayed on. Remnants of that culture are still there, often now hidden in the hills. The gentrification that Byron Bay itself has experienced is typical of a lot of places, where the desirable culture gets colonized and pushed to the fringes. But I think it would be hard to totally stomp out that spirit there. It’s embedded.

I think for me where I grew up created a desire to live in an urban context or a very different environment. It’s the common pendulum swing, like our parents embracing alternative lifestyles, a lot of my generation embraced city life. So that’s still with me now, but I have these moments knowing I can live off not much. Growing up with periods of no hot water and bucket showers, completely off the grid. There were nights when we didn’t have any power. It’s a nice thing knowing that you can survive off minimum resources if need be. It’s pretty humbling.

Your mother is also an artist, is being an artist something that you always envisioned for yourself growing up?

Not really. I was heavily into playing music until I was a teenager. I was always creative (drawing, making story books) and attending a Steiner School meant that creative expression was my norm. In my early years of high school I remember needing to carve an identity that was for myself (as separate to my mother’s), so I kind of rebelled against the urge to be an artist. The experience of going to a public high school highlighted that I was good at art making. So I started painting and it went from there.

You lived in Berlin in 2012 and then Vancouver B.C the following year, what prompted you to move to Berlin?

I’d wanted to move there three or four years before I finally did. My partner’s plan to move to Vancouver encouraged me to finally go to Berlin. So we went our ways after we’d both spent the summer together in Europe and a residency in The Netherlands. I don’t know whether leading up to the point that I’d planned to go there, if I just became more aware of the trend towards Berlin or whether there was a real increase of Australians going there in general.

I think that people have a utopian vision of Berlin these days, this idea that it’s a creative hub of artists and start-up companies with cheap rents, which is definitely true. But the reality of the situation is that Berlin is so saturated with people trying to do the same thing as you. Did anybody tell you how hard it would be to get a paid job and the low wages?

Not really. I think having places set in your mind a certain way by others can be dangerous. You’re getting certain pictures painted about those places, which are all the things that make you want to go there (perhaps you only hear what you want to hear). So not necessarily the day-to-day reality of moving to a place like Berlin. I feel like before I went, I’d been told that it is a great place to visit, but not necessarily to live.

I felt a sort of incompetence over there that I hadn’t experienced before, and maybe it’s just that there are so many people there striving for the similar goal, but I just felt that there was a real savvyness and a hard-edge survival thing that I hadn’t experienced before, or since.

I think all of those lifestyle traits that are playing out — the low rent, the creative culture, the proximity to the rest of Europe — all those things are appealing which is why it’s at the point of such saturation. But it’s the mere fact that you are faced up against so many other people who are striving for the same things.

There appears to be some backlash from some locals about the influx of international people moving in, particular in Kreuzberg. What did you think about the 'Tourists Go Home' stickers and slogans?

I think there is a lot of validity in that. If you’re native to somewhere and you see it gentrify to a rapid extent, it’s bound to create a response. And it should! The same could be said of Brunswick [Melbourne] now, although the majority of us are not native to this land. But the experience of seeing a place change so rapidly and altering access — not only to those desirable lifestyle choices but to basic lifestyles and resources — I can appreciate the frustration. The experience of being there and watching that level of gentrification play out, it can be difficult ethically, feeling like you’re contributing to that also.

In Australia we did a lot of work in the arts, and then to find it hard to find a job in that field. How many jobs did you apply for?

A lot! It became quite demeaning. But the thing about it is, you can’t judge it against what you would be up against in your own environment. Maybe this is what kept it in perspective for me, being there and striving to have something that planted me in this space.

But it’s the same for locals in Berlin. My [German] flatmate had the experience his whole life of transient and low paid jobs. There’s also a different class culture in Berlin it seems, I mean, a life as an artist or a philosopher making ends meet (even as an older individual) is socially much more common I feel than somewhere like Australia. But that was kind of interesting and reassuring to know, that it’s not necessarily an expat or foreigners experience of the city. There is also widespread unemployment in Berlin, around 25% of the population.

Do you get a sense of community in Berlin?

I felt like I was on my way to a sense of community, but that’s hard to really establish in four months. I feel like it’s common to filter your way through different communities when you’re new to a place, a lot of it is about stripping back the initial layers of experience to find where those more meaningful relationships might be. There was so much going on (in Berlin) that it would have taken me a longer time to really get a strong sense of that. But there’s all the opportunity to. And I didn’t want to slot right in with other Australians. I naturally found good people through the different houses I lived in – those were the kinds of experiences I was seeking. My understanding of the city and of Germany was greater because of that. And I’m still in touch with the people I lived with!

How was making artwork in Berlin?

I don’t think I was very productive because I was constantly trying to make sure that I could stay there, worrying about financially being able to support myself.

I was making a bit of physical work, but mostly I was writing. That’s how I was channeling a lot of my energies when I was overseas in general, because it was a lot more immediate and because it was a lot easier to do on the move. It was also about engaging with that I was seeing that wasn’t necessary overshadowing making. I think a lot of the stimulus that you are taking in — and I’ve spoken to a lot of other people who have had the same experience — it’s often hard to separate your own creative process and head space from everything your experiencing. Your senses are constantly being bombarded with stimuli. So that was an interesting experience but also a logistical one of not having the space. But I wasn’t there long enough to be honest. I think four months is only just checking things out.

So then you moved to Vancouver. What was that like?

It was very different. It was relieving in a lot of ways. There were the main factors like the language barrier. You realize returning to an English speaking country how much the language and general expression impacts on your personality. That said, there’s something to say for assumptions around sharing a common language, when things like humour and vocab are still often so foreign.

It took me a while to appreciate Vancouver. I think that I only really did after I left. It was a small tight knit community, particular in the arts. I think that it was easy to navigate so it was refreshing in terms of landing there and getting an initial sense of what it was about and where I might fit in, where I wanted to focus my energies. I found it more of a sobering experience in a lot of ways, in the sense that in Berlin you have to work harder to find where you want to be, because there’s just so much on offer.

Where did you live in Vancouver?

I lived in East Van, which is known for being a more alternative community. Lots of young queer and trans kids live there. I lived up in Grandview, which is up past Commercial Drive, on the hill. It has amazing views of the mountains. It was a great community to land in and get to know people.

How important has traveling been in the development of your work? Before you left for Berlin you were painting and now you have departed that to a more text based practice.

I think I was needing to depart from painting when I left, or at least go away to reflect on it. I was having this somewhat suffocating experience of painting in this context, like painters here were too safe. Through my travels and time in Vancouver, I found other outlets that were born out of necessity. It’s common for artists traveling to work small, or find a different means of expression. So I think that it was probably a case of seeking it but also it was exposure to other art scenes and political realities.

In one of your articles that you wrote for Das Platforms, you state, 'Vancouver is a city visibly framed by an awareness of social inclusivity with an active agency towards egalitarianism'. Was Vancouver a turning point in your practice?

Definitely! It’s interesting to read that piece now and to see that a lot of those claims were sweeping (although true of my initial way of seeing the city). That piece was specifically intended to be about how we assess and frame a new place. It seems too simplistic now, knowing a lot of the complexities of Vancouver, but Canada is a very progressive country in a lot of ways! My exposure to North American currents in art and social praxis proved to be hugely influential on my practice, although I was too immersed to realise it at the time. I’d also have to contribute a lot of what I was exposed to in Vancouver to my partner, who was working in Downtown EastSide, a refuge for women in the sex trade. The struggles of the city are hard for artists to completely push out of view, so that had a big impact for me, the ways these concerns are somehow tackled.

How do you think all this compares to the art scene in Melbourne?

I was saying to someone recently that I think there is an even less visible presence of a contemporary art market in Vancouver than in Melbourne. It was interesting going to Van because I had certain notions of the city propped up—through speaking to people in Berlin before I left, with reactions like “what are you doing that for?” with regards to the art scene there. So to discover that there was an art scene and one that I was particularly engaged with was a really welcomed surprise.

The lack of an art market in Vancouver is quite fascinating. I guess the serious practitioners in that space weren’t concerned with putting a price tag on their work, so there’s not so much of a catering to make sellable work. In fact quite the opposite is true. A funny story was when an editor of a local online journal I was writing for (Decoy Magazine) asked me at an exhibition what kind of a price label I would put on a particular photograph. I can’t recall the figure, but for the size and assumed provenance, I didn’t think it was unreasonable. It was laughed at. That told me a lot about the difference.

This is also one way I see a connection between the political agendas being pushed in Vancouver (activism, protest culture etc.) and the contemporary art scene there. There’s an anti-establishment, DIY ethos running through the west coast region in general. I found Vancouver to be very rigorous and conceptually engaged with a lot of what I was really interested in. There’s a strong analytic current from Europe as well as America. Also the city’s history with poetry is particularly great!

Do you think that working in a commercial gallery changed your perspective on the art market?

Yes definitely. I was young (23) when I started working for ARC ONE Gallery. Chronologically not that young, but naive to a lot. Working in that environment was really inspiring and also quite difficult. Working with the artists was the most rewarding aspect. The more I saw into the industry (the gallery was more a gateway than a finite reading of the art market), the more I realised I identified with being on the other side of the fence. My five years there was one of the best educations I’ve received, especially in terms of getting to know the cornerstones of the Melbourne art world.

How important is altruism in the art world?

For me it’s something that is really important. I know that its not on everyone’s agenda, a lot of it is driven by self pursuit. I think it’s really important for art to be about something other than the self and the elevated notion of the author.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all art should have a social responsibility, but I think for me it does and that has been enforced by my travels. Also in my understanding of the term ‘privilege’ which has been shaped by my identity as a queer woman and through my time living in Vancouver. This has brought a new sense of responsibility to my work, that I feel is not at once directly visible in the forms they take, but that’s in the internal mechanics. In terms of art’s ability to leave the self and do something on a social or a political level, this agency can be pretty profound!

You recently had an exhibition at C3 that used the gallery as an expanded publication.

It was a small but dense show. This was my first exhibition in three years or more in Melbourne. The premise of the show —entitled Dear History, Painting — came about organically through the research that I was doing and in wanting to bring writing as a form into the gallery. Having since returned to study Art History, I was kind of thinking prospectively about our contemporary relationship to art history. I wanted to make a comment about how dominant narratives (colonization, war, religion) are delivered to us by certain means historically, by way of challenging the hierarchy of art forms. To make a show where the dominant historic form (painting) became the support text rather than the primary object. Text and drawing have historically played the role of support for painting, I wanted to see what happened when I inverted that dynamic in relation to broader ideologies.

Tell me about the image that you did of Australian photographer Sue Ford. You have been heavily involved in her archives before and after she died?

Sweeping Exchanges (Sue) is one part of a double portrait that re-enacts an exchange. On the one hand it’s an exchange between photographer Sue Ford and curator activist Lucy Lippard, which re-imagines their encounter in 1975 (when Lippard toured Australia). The visit was Lucy’s first here and Sue documented a women’s only talk she gave at the Ewing Gallery at the University of Melbourne. On the other hand, it’s about an exchange between the natural bodies of these women and their political body doubles (portraying them as shadow portraits, referencing a series of Sue’s photographs that rework images over different time registers). It’s part homage to the kinds of support networks experienced by women of the same movement in different countries and times, and part admiration for a mentor and a friend.

I moved to Melbourne on invitation of Sue in 2004, to work for her as part of a Fellowship grant she’d received to create her archive. Originally I was going to come for two weeks, but I decided before I came to make the move from Brisbane. It was one of the best decisions I made and I owe it largely to her invitation. I worked with her, mostly in retouching and editing images from the Time Series. That work slowly died off, but by that time Sue had introduced me to the ladies at ARC ONE Gallery (who were representing her) and I started working for them. I’ll be starting up some work on her archive again in the coming months.

Do you have any favorite works by her?

The Shadow Portrait series stand out for their gestural and symbolic significance, as spaces for encounter between histories and bodies in a post-colonial context. Sue’s catalogue is so rich with artistic and political referents specific to Australia’s history, that it’s hard to pin point particularly important works over others. Her portraits of artists and beatniks from the 60’s and 70’s are particularly beautiful and important works that document life on the fringes of Melbourne (works such as St Kilda 1963, Lawrence Beck 1962 and Clif and Marlene Pugh in the studio 1964). I also love Self-portrait 1982 where Sue is holding a joker card up to her face!

Earlier in the year you exhibited in another Artist Run Space called TCB. There was some controversy about the show and the inclusion of a male in an exhibition entitled Re-Raising Conciousness that dealt with feminism. And now you’re writing an article for un Magazine about this experience. Tell me about your article.

Re-Raising Consciousness was an exhibition and participatory installation that revisited the feminist consciousness-raising groups of New York in the late 1960s. The physical exhibition was intended to recreate the kinds of living rooms that hosted these intimate group discussions. There was also an extensive program of events running parallel to the exhibition, on and off site.

I really can’t comment on the events around the exhibition, due to certain sensitivities. I mentioned some of what had happened to an acquaintance (an artist who was heavily involved in the second-wave feminist movement) and she kind of laughed and said that it wouldn’t be a feminist show without political controversy. I think the disappointing thing was that is really detracted a lot from what the project was setting out to do, and that it narrowed the undertaking down to omit a lot of valuable discussion around accessibility etc.

Early one morning before the show opened (around 4am), I couldn’t sleep so I got up and sat on the couch to write. I ended up writing a letter to Sue (who passed away in 2009) in context of a piece that framed the personal within the political. This piece was read by one of the curators of the show, Fayen d’Evie, to introduce a re-enactment of a consciousness-raising group. This piece turned into an essay which is due to be launched in the upcoming issue of un Magazine. I continued to explore the notion of ‘sweeping exchanges’ that I was looking at in my work for the show. As a result, the essay looks at feminism from a trans-historical point of view, considering how political agency can be seen to live on in the immortal political body (as opposed to the perishable physical body). It’s all about connections!

Interview Melbourne 2015