Returning the Gift: Art in Exchange for Knowledge
Kelly Doley is a Sydney based artist who likes to confuse the boundaries between painting and performance and, increasingly between art and life. The two of us met in 2004, while studying at The College of Fine Arts (Sydney) and have been collaborating in one way or another ever since. We make video and performance works with the other members of Brown Council; we worked together as Directors of Sydney artist run initiatives, Firstdraft and Quarterbred; and we lived together for many years—which I often think of as the ultimate collaboration. This interview marked a new type of collaboration that began with a conversation about art, in this instance about Doley’s current project, The Learning Centre, a participatory performance centred on direct communication, conversation and interactivity.
Through The Learning Centre Doley has constructed an imaginary system of exchange, in which knowledge is traded for art—or more specifically lessons on life are given to the artist in return for a painting. The first public outcome of this project, The Learning Centre: Manifestos for Living, took place as part of Draught, an exhibition at Tin Sheds Gallery, in January this year. For this exhibition, Doley invited participants from different cultural, political and religious backgrounds into the gallery to give her a one-hour lesson on what they do, why they do it, and how it gives them meaning. This act of performative pedagogy took place in an installation that looked much like a classroom—complete with blackboards, a table and chairs, and just the right amount of stationary to undertake serious learning.
Over the duration of the exhibition, Doley received lessons from 16 participants on subjects as diverse as: hypnotherapy, anarchism, Buddhism and biochemistry. In exchange for their lesson, the participants were able to request a painting of their choice to be completed by the artist in the studio at a later date. The second public outcome of this project, The Learning Centre: Paintings for People, which opened at Firstdraft in October this year, involved Doley returning the paintings to the participants at designated times throughout the course of the exhibition.
Let’s start simple. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me about what prompted your interest in creating The Learning Centre?
Last year I became quite disenchanted with the art world; I found myself questioning the validity of artistic practice, and rethinking my role as an artist. I became interested in making work that prioritised an engagement with people outside of the art world, who might not necessarily be equipped with the tools to decode the complex language of contemporary art. So I decided to invite a range of people into the gallery to teach me a ‘lesson’ about how they live their life. I thought that through this process, I would discover some kind of ‘truth’ about art and why I had chosen to devote my life to such a cause; or alternatively it would enable me to find a more suitable life path.
How did you invite the participants to take part in the project?
I sent a formal letter of invitation to people that I specifically wanted to engage with, including: a monk, a life coach and a board member from Greenpeace. In addition, I posted WANTED signs up around the city and placed advertisements on online classified sites. It was important to me that the majority of the participants were strangers, as I wanted to connect with people that I might not otherwise come into contact with.
How important is the audience to you? In the case of The Learning Centre did you see the participants as the audience?
For me the audience is everything; as an artist my aim is to connect with people via the framework of art. I am interested in creating an active space in which audiences can directly engage with the work and are essential to the success, and indeed the very existence of the performative act. In terms of The Learning Centre, which was a participatory performance, I see the ‘participants’ as the ‘audience’.
The artist/audience or artist/participant relationship is complicated by the fact that there are two levels of audience co-existing in the work. On the one level there is the audience/participant who is either conducting the lesson or collecting their painting. They are integral to the performance, as the work simply doesn’t exist if they don’t turn up—in the same way that it can’t exist without the presence of the artist. On the next level there is the audience/participant who enters the gallery and experiences the ‘performance’ from the periphery. I like to think that their role was also participatory as they were able to make a choice to either listen to the lesson, or just simply walk past.
What led you to the decision to stage The Learning Centre in the gallery?
I have had many suggestions from people that this work should be presented in a more public space, like a classroom or a community centre for instance. There is a long-standing tradition of this type of practice in which artists take an interventionist approach and present similar projects in site-specific locations. However, I wanted to use the gallery as a site-specific space in which performative exchanges, interactions and conversations could unfold. Placing social events and rituals in the gallery is a way to play with the conventions of the hermetic ‘white cube’ and challenge the historical traditions of art with its focus on presentation and display. I am also interested in bringing people into the gallery who wouldn’t normally engage with contemporary art, let alone be a part of an artwork.
Can you tell me a little bit about your decision to set up a system of exchange between art and knowledge? Do you think this is an equal act of reciprocity?
When I first started this project I hadn’t really considered the notion of reciprocation. I (perhaps naively) assumed that the experience of teaching a lesson to an artist in the context of an artwork would be an interesting enough experience for the participants.
However, it soon became apparent that people wanted something in return for the effort and time required to prepare and deliver a lesson. I couldn’t offer them money, so it had to be in the form of trade, and the most obvious thing for me to do was to paint them a picture—as painting is a skill that I possess. I was unsure if the painting itself would be considered an equal trade, but I hoped that the gesture of making a painting—a task that requires time and effort—would be considered an equal act of reciprocity.
Can you tell me about the types of requests you received from the participants about what they wanted you to paint? I imagine that there would have been a broad range of responses, so how did you approach this in practice?
The requests were very diverse and ranged from simple images like: a bee, or a house, to quite specific things like: ‘a picture of something bright and cheerful, so that when I wake up I can say “Hooray it’s a new day!”’[i] To overcome the difficulties of painting a predetermined subject matter, and to create a relationship between the works I developed a set of aesthetic rules, which included: a uniform canvas size, painting application and colour palette. Once the aesthetic concerns were resolved I really enjoyed being able to switch off and treat the act of painting as a task, almost like a form of manual labour.
I really like the way that you have constructed an imaginary ‘gift economy’ in which a one-hour lesson is valued equally to the time and materials required for you to make a painting. Is this a critique of the art market and the value that is placed on works of art, which often seems so illogical to someone outside of that system?
I think that this invented art economy which trades art for knowledge does challenge the conventional system of buying and selling, and wheeling and dealing that takes place in the art market. Because you can’t buy or sell these works, the potential market value and role of the ‘dealer’ has been removed from the equation. I am by no means against the commercial art market; I am just imagining other systems in which art can potentially be traded.
In The Learning Centre: Paintings for People at Firstdraft the paintings were exhibited as conventional ‘art objects’, and yet their primary function is to act as an object of exchange. Why did you decide to have an exhibition of the paintings rather than simply returning them to the participants outside of a gallery context?
I chose to display the paintings in the gallery context as I wanted to make the act of exchange visible to the public. While initially the paintings were hung on the wall as ‘art objects’, they continued to disappear over the course of the exhibition as the participants come to collect them—leaving only bare hooks and pencil lines in their place. What primarily interests me is the disappearance of the paintings over time—the gesture of going from something to nothing.
How have the participants responded to their paintings?
There have been mixed responses from the participants, mainly about the aesthetic choice to use black paint. It would seem that people generally prefer colourful paintings! Mohammad Kamal, who gave me a lesson on biochemistry, had an interesting response. When he saw his painting, of a scientific diagram, he immediately proposed a plan for a potential collaboration combining art and science. He also suggested I make a few additions to his painting including religious iconography to represent each of us. At that point I had to inform him that this might not be appropriate, given that I am a staunch atheist!
Over the years you have moved away from the traditions of painting and object-based practice in favour of a performance based approach, and yet there is always an element of painting in your work. How do you see the paintings functioning in The Learning Centre?
My practice began as an inquiry into the relevance of painting, and more recently, of art itself. This has led me to other forms of artistic practice, like performance and socially collaborative works. However, painting is still a central part of my work and the basis of my training; I like to consider how painting can function within performance-based practice. In the case of The Learning Centre my ability to ‘paint a picture’ is the skill or service I am able to supply in exchange for knowledge. The act of painting aids the process of engagement with the participants and when exhibited acts as a document of the ‘event’. They are proof that the contract of exchange between art and knowledge has taken place.
I know that you have been thinking about the best way to document The Learning Centre and also what to do with the knowledge that has been imparted on you. Where are you up to with this process?
It is always difficult to document a performance and particularly participatory performance after the event because it is premised on exchange and dialogue. The subsequent recordings of the event are completely removed from the moment of interaction, conversation and encounter, which is, in my view, the actual work. Even so, I still have a desire to archive the information, and communicate the process to viewers. People are curious about what was said during the lessons, so I suppose it is important to share that information. At this stage I am planning to present the ‘remnants’ of the work like an archive—possibly in the form of a book, which will include excerpts from the transcripts and photographic documentation.
What’s next for The Learning Centre?
Next year I am planning to take The Learning Centre to several locations around Australia—the first stop is Fremantle Arts Centre, where I will be undertaking a month long residency, and working with the local community. The long-term plan is to tour the work overseas and continue the process of ‘learning’. I still have a lot of unanswered questions about whether it is possible to commodify knowledge, life experience and education and if these unquantifiable elements can be traded for art. So I’m hoping that by presenting The Learning Centre in different cities, continents and cultures I might get a little bit closer to finding out.
For more information on The Learning Centre visit: www.kellydoley.com
[i] Prudence Xu, transcript from a Lesson on Chinese Characters, The Learning Centre, Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 11 February 2010
A conversation between Di Smith and Kelly Doley.
This piece was first published in Runway magazine. Many thanks to Di Smith for the interview and images courtesy of the artist.