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In Conversation with Artist Juliana España Keller

We chat to Juliana España Keller about her latest work ‘Sonic Alchemy’, hitting the Convent Monday 22 – Saturday 27 May. We find out what her ensemble of volunteer performers can expect from their week-long rehearsal, from kitchen appliance hunting, to deep listening – culminating in a performance in the Rosina Auditorium. Apply to be a part of this one-off musical experience before Monday 15 May.

Through your six-day residency with select volunteers, you’re offering a robust collaborative experience. What does the workshop involve, other than the final performance and music rehearsals?

This residency offers volunteers an opportunity to use domestic kitchen utensils to create experimental sound through performance, sound exploration, and the practice of deep listening. During the workshop, discussions will highlight the kitchen as a site for rituals, traditions, family and social relations. We will connect to the slow food vs fast food kitchen and to the effects and tempo of electronic sound. I am hoping this project creates community building and offers the volunteers an exposure to new processes in sound performance. Also, volunteers will learn collaborative learning processes in creating a sound performance work. In this commissioned work, the focus is put on making connections that encourage people towards self-reflection and a deeper engagement with society.

Do people who apply need to have some music making experience?

Not at all. I intend on working with volunteers who have experience in working with sound, or not, or are interested in partaking in a sound project to write sonic recipes for non-traditional instruments.

Why have you decided to use volunteers over established musicians or sound artists?

My belief is that this process is to comment on a creative form/medium/action, and I hope that volunteers are signing up to create a small footprint in the world. As a visual artist, I am interested in creating a strong network specifically with young, emerging artists, general audiences and cultural communities. Kitchens are a central place of homes, common to every human.

What draws you to working in a collaborative space?

Sound has the ability to create a relational space, a meeting point around a common kitchen table. It’s sort of like opening up a portable picnic table and starting a conversation while listening to music. From my perspective, this makes sound a significant model for thinking and experiencing our everyday, because we all need to work together and this demands and necessitates continual reworking. This connection also emphasises our place in our local community. It also provides a key opportunity to create a shared space that exists as a network that teaches us how to belong, to find place and still search for a new connection, for proximity.

There are a number of elements in the performance – participants use multiple appliances and engage the audience theatrically. With so much to cover in a week, why have you dedicated large chunks of rehearsal time to ‘deep listening’? Why is that so important for the process?

‘Deep Listening’ is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment, without trying to control what we hear. In this workshop, based on the theory and practice of American Composer Pauline Oliveros, volunteers will experience how to make listening an effective tool or an active collective process. So often listening is seen as a passive, static activity. In fact, listening and a contemplative mind is open and vibrant yet spacious, and it can be cultivated through instruction and practice. I use breathing exercises, body movement and vocal gesture as a classroom practice, as volunteers witness their thoughts and emotions while maintaining focused attention on what they are hearing. It is attentive rather than reactive listening. Such listening techniques not only increase retention of material but also encourages insight and the making of meaning – a technique you can use anywhere, anytime. We will be holding the workshop in the Rosina Auditorium space where we can explore these ideas and move in space, listening to the environment around us. If the weather is good, we will move outside into the gardens and tune into the natural world around us.

Which appliance is the most rock ‘n’ roll? Some can recreate fairly traditional pop music sounds, like your use of the amplified egg slicer.

Many participants come to the workshop with an assortment of kitchen tools and appliances from their kitchens. We will also devote a morning to go to Savers to pick up some tools of their choice. Volunteers will quickly find a favourite tool or appliance that they will learn to have fun with and get really good at playing it in no time, with some practice. Volunteers use contact mics to translate the sound from the kitchen appliance or hand tool that is playing out through a guitar amplifier. So yes, you can say that we are a “rock and roll band” of some sort because we are making experimental “electronic noise” art. A metal oven-rack from your kitchen oven can sound out like a deep bass electric guitar or an egg slicer can amplify like an electronic harp. The possibilities are endless. This is where the volunteers can make their own unique sounds and have fun in the collective process.

How much trial and error were involved in deciding on the right mix of appliances for the final performance?

In order for this performance collective to function autonomously through sound improvisation, we co-compose a sound ‘recipe’ ­– the equivalent of a musical partition. Therefore, after the “Deep Listening” workshop with sound and body exercises, volunteers listen to each other’s sound patterns in rehearsal to create renewed ways to divert the initial function of the kitchen appliances. After some time spent in rehearsals, the final public performance outcome is to present a musical recipe of electronic and acoustic content.

What can audiences expect from the performance? What do you compare your sound to?

In terms of audience reception, I hope to freely blur the lines between performance art and community organising to create a deeply participatory artform. The audience will engage in a deep immersive sound environment in a public space.

The performance is a visual and aural explosion out of the domestic kitchen, with performers manipulating amplified appliances while donning matching blonde wigs and pink gloves, like parodied Stepford Wives. What is ‘Sonic Alchemy’ saying about domesticity and role of women?

‘Sonic Alchemy’ will develop an understanding on how aesthetic practices, the private ‘doing-cooking’ in the kitchen, can contribute to the social formation of a specific community to create a sonic artwork as a public kitchen. The art of ‘doing-cooking’ in the kitchen will be examined through the cultural knowledge and technical skills handed down through the handling of kitchen tools in food preparation and consumption.

Feminism to me is a world view that demands a rethinking of questions of power in society and thus has undeniable potential. My creative practice takes on questions of women, society and artmaking through the medium of sound entwined with the culture of food preparation and consumption. My research takes on a feminist materialist approach to expand on gender, identity, culture and the embodiment of a deeply layered performance art practice. What is at stake and what needs to be articulated is that innovative modes of new media and experimental noise‐based art sometimes cannot be easily assimilated by people. My aim is to investigate how kitchen tools are connected to social engagement, to facilitate and increase the potential of human interactivity. The material values of kitchen tools and appliances will play a vital role in the production of a sonic artwork and the different ways in which women collaborate.

I am also interested in how to socially construct the relation between private and public space. The formation of the artwork will make the material links to the embodiment of social encounters in relation to the volunteers, visible. My PhD research explores social class, difference, women’s lives and women’s labour in a public kitchen. It asks: how can the dynamics of ‘aural perception’ promote interaction and heighten new possibilities for social engagement? Since household chores of the everyday kitchen workplace shape our daily experience, I am developing a sound performance practice that shifts and repositions the status of kitchen tools and appliances as social markers, in ways that seek to open sites of resonance and resistance.

Does that message carry extra weight with the Abbotsford Convent and its history as a Magdalen Asylum forming a backdrop to the performance?

I went on the Abbotsford Convent website to research the convent and its place in Melbourne’s cultural and social history. I have read on the history page of Abbotsford that by 1900, the Convent was the largest charitable institution operating in the southern part of Australia and at its peak more than 1,000 women and children lived behind its enclosed walls. There were vegetable and fruit gardens, dairy and poultry farms and a piggery and three operating kitchens. This was my starting point for the project and why I wanted to apply and address this history. As a home cook, mother, wife and artist, one observes the banality of the everyday through the actions of manual labour in the kitchen. With the collection of hand tools and electric motors accrued, I have developed a critical sound performance practice that shifts and repositions their status as tools and social markers, in ways that seek to open up sites of voice and resonance. I am hoping that through ‘Sonic Alchemy’, the volunteers will sound out through these tools in tribute to the women and children who lived and worked on the grounds of Abbotsford Convent.

What other performances or works are you aiming to produce this year?

After this commission, I am travelling to Spain on an artist residency to do some research in a small little village in Blanca, Murcia. I will be working again with a group of women from this small village to gather research data on their relationship to their private kitchen. I will be holding videoed discussions about their personal histories related to the rituals, family traditions and family relations handed down through their tools of the kitchen. This research will contribute to my PhD thesis dissertation and thesis exhibition. These videoed discussions will be presented as video artworks in my final thesis exhibition.