Back to all News

In Conversation with STELARC and Jill Orr

As part of Leisa Shelton’s culture-shifting work ARCHIVING THE EPHEMERAL you can talk one-on-one with the incredible Australian performance artists, Jill Orr or STELARC. Despite being active in the art world since the 70s and making an indelible mark on Australian experimental art history, neither artist has ever sat down with an audience member like this. 

We interviewed these incredible performers, ahead of this historical moment, asked them about Performing the Archive, and gained some insights into why they do what they do.  

1.    How does it make you feel to reflect on your career as part of Performing the Archive? Is this something you often do as part of your work or are you an artist who tends to focus on the future?

Jill Orr: I have given many artist’s talks over the years but Performing the Archive is a unique opportunity to talk to one person on a focused and personal level. I am reminded of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present. I hope this too will bring new connections and surprises. 

STELARC: Sometimes it’s best to forget the past and not being desirous of the future. Allowing an unfolding in its own time and with its own rhythm, incorporating the unexpected and the accidental. A future is not a future if it is not of the unexpected

2.    Both of you have explored themes with your work that, when you first started, were not widely known about or embraced. How has your work and people’s response to it changed over the years?

Jill Orr: My practice has focused on environmental issues from its inception in the 1970’s. I have witnessed the gradual understanding and uptake of the word, ‘environment’, particularly associated with climate change, which is now a necessary part of contemporary vernacular. This is a vital, urgent and clear evolution of a barely-heard term into a term that even children are aware of. 

STELARC: There was an interest in the evolutionary architecture of the body and how it becomes interactive and aware in the world. Having realized a series of sensory deprivation and physically stressful situations and done 27 suspension performances, there was a realisation that the body was not only inadequate but profoundly obsolete in the technological terrain that it inhabits. There was a desire to augment the body with technology, the first being the third hand. Other augmentations have included an extended arm, an exoskeleton 6-legged walking robot, a prosthetic head and an ear on my arm. My Japanese artist friends would remind me of a saying at the time – “high tech, low art”. Not anymore. Interestingly, now there is a university research area in ‘Augmented Humans’. As for the suspension performances, they are now widespread in the body modification community. Not so much done in an art context, but more for a physical challenge and spiritual reasons (neither of which have been concerns for me). 


1.   When do you first remember wanting to push the boundaries of your body and its capabilities? When did you first introduce technology as a way to do this?

I was not selected to do a fourth year at RMIT because I wasn’t fulfilling course requirements in Sculpture, which included casting, carving, welding and moulding. One of the first things I did in Art School in the late sixties was to make helmets that split your binocular vision as you walked, and also a 3m diameter rotating, immersive compartment for your upper body, resulting in the viewer experiencing fragmented images and electronic sounds. 

2.   As we get older, we can often become resistant to changes and developments in technology. Does technology scare you too? Why? Why not?

Oh, I don’t think that is the case with everyone. No, not scary at all. Really exciting. Technology generates new information and unexpected images. New media have always been seductive for artists. Learning how to use new technologies is informative and energizing, keeping you alert and generating new possibilities. 

Jill Orr

1.   How does a kid from the country end up as one of the most prolific Australian experimental performance artists of our time? What inspired you to choose this career path? 

I always saw elves, fairies and bush spirits as a kid amongst the mud, trees and the river. I understood that there are parallel realities who share multi-dimensions across time and space continuously. On the mundane level I chose art school because the only thing I knew was that I needed to create through my hands. Then, while studying sculpture at art school, I understood that I had to get out of static material and into the live embodied moment. That began my dance training. I was never going to be a ballet dancer, (too old and the form was too stereotypical at that time) but an understanding of movement in space and embodied images, gave me freedom. The greatest muscle I developed was the imagination, which is the source and impetus for me to make art manifest.  

2.   You have performed all over the world, why have you chosen to remain based here in Australia? How do you find audience in Australia respond to your works compared with other places? 

Australia is the country of my birth and my obligation. It is where I am grounded and where I understand the power of this place and the issues that I am able to respond to in depth. Much of my work is site specific, often in the regions. I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples as Australia’s First Nation people whose land was brutally stolen and is still unceded. I will vote YES in the referendum.

As a non-indigenous person, I have found that understanding my own heritage, and that of my ancestors relation to this land is vital. They have contributed to both Indigenous and environmental destruction and yet their plight is also an empathetic search for a Promised Land. We have a truth in our Australian stories that must be told by us. This is not nationalistic but one where a place of a truth resides. Other counties have their own truths to tell. 

Performing the Archive 
15, 16 and 22 April

Book now

See the full program for Archiving the Ephemeral here