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In Conversation with Artist Claire Robertson

"If I am making a work about a space or place, I want to get to know it. I move through different processes to better understand my own experience and interaction with that place and as well as observe how others relate to the space. "

Next week, we’ll be announcing a bold and exciting program of artworks, which you can enjoy at the Convent over the next few months. The first artwork, Above & Below, by Claire and Jasmine Robertson, commences on Saturday 8 April, and you’re invited to join a group contemplation on the banks of the Yarra. We had a chat with Claire about what to expect!

Above and Below contains a number of elements – meditation on the banks of the Yarra River, audio guides via smartphones, video recording using a drone – all culminating in the screening of a yet to be shot and edited film. Is this the most logistically involved work you’ve created?

This first ‘instalment’ of the work in the form of group contemplation is actually part of the development stage of the work. Some months ago, Jasmine and I stood on opposite banks of the Yarra and contemplated our distance. We were yelling across the water and found it difficult to communicate (both to hear and to read each other’s body language). We had been thinking about this division in a poetic way – two banks that longingly watch each other across distance, but never actually meet. Jasmine and I wanted to share our experience with others. We wanted to invite the public in to be part of the work and to share their thoughts and ideas and experiences on the content.

My work always involves long and involved development periods. This can be formal research through published texts, or more informal through conversations, experimentations and spending time in a space. If I am making a work about a space or place, I want to get to know it. I move through different processes to better understand my own experience and interaction with that place and as well as observe how others relate to the space. This first event is part of that getting to know stage. Jasmine and I are getting to know the landscape around the Convent before we move deeper in and we are inviting the public to be a part of that process.

It’s not the most logistically involved work I have done. My last work was filmed in the Pilbara Region of the Western Australian desert on Martu land. For that project, I had to fly across to WA quite a few times, laden with equipment. I packed cars with fuel and food and water and swags and maps and organised stays at mining camps and cattle stations. Even when you have a personal connection with a place, getting to know it takes time. That work started out as something quite different but through observing, experiencing and witnessing, the story that I needed to tell emerged.

With so many elements in play, how do you hope to focus the participants on the act of meditation, and make sure they’re not distracted?

I’d like to stress that the word meditation in this context is used more as a way to describe a quiet or considered contemplation. I prefer to call it a led contemplation. Through our audio guide, we are asking the participants to enter the landscape, not as a separate entity but to merge with it. It is difficult to say what is a distraction and what is just experience. At the end we are hoping to collect people’s experiences to help inform our work.

Is the participants’ focus and concentration in the act of meditation important? Will that be a deciding factor in the piece’s success?

This is a part of the process so I’m not sure it is something that can be regarded as successful or not. It’s gathering information. However, one could say that focusing is not the aim of meditation; it is more about being in the present moment. I am interested in how we be present with each other (you, me and nature). I am also interested in the difference between our physical boundaries or understanding of self and our emotional or psychological boundaries of self. These are all things that the audio guide will explore. Hopefully it will also be fun.

How important is participation in your work?

For those who participate in the initial development I think they will have a deeper connection to the final work as they will have an understanding of where it began and played a part in the process of making.

Meditation is associated with mindfulness, self-improvement and the ethereal. Video is associated with voyeurism, surveillance and the mediated world. What are you saying by melding the two?

The group contemplation is an exercise for research. It may or may not make it into the final piece but is a part of getting to know the landscape with others. We are also consulting Wurundjeri Elders, and are in the process of speaking with people who work out of the Convent, including the Yarra Riverkeeper Association. This is all part of the development stage.

For me, one of the greatest things about video is that you can edit time and space. The only other place that you can do this is in the mind. For that reason, I think it is the perfect medium to explore internal worlds. I very rarely include people in my work because I don’t feel comfortable representing them or making them ‘other.’ The second part of the work is about the complications of that process. It made sense for me to film someone with shared history and shared DNA. Our bodies look the same and even though I will be a camera-person, we will both be part of the performance. We will capture the process of capturing in a self-reflexive way.

This is a collaborative effort. How important has it been to have your sister Jasmine involved in this work? Has her presence changed your practice at all?

Collaboration will always change things up. That’s why I love it so much. Collaboration allows me to be more daring, to try new things. It is safer to take risks when you are working with another. Jasmine and I work well together. In our development sessions we have the same energy. We need breaks at the same time, food at the same time, we power nap in tandem. Ideas move faster. The whole project is quite different to past individual works for both of us.

You’ve given yourself roughly six weeks between the meditation part of the work and the video screening. Do you know what the video is going to look like?

We have some ideas but who knows where this journey will take us.

To find out about our new public program launching next week, sign up to the Convent’s monthly e-news, The Humbug.