PICA's forthcoming exhibition, Radical Ecologies, is a sensory invitation to question our complex relationships with our own bodies, each other and the natural world. Featuring new work by Western Australian artists practicing at the sharpest edge of contemporary practice, Radical Ecologies acknowledges our continued environmental dystopia and, in response, offers a range of therapeutic experiences. We caught up with artists Peter and Molly - whose gallery debut will see them getting intimate with octopuses, leeches and oysters - to find out more about what we can expect from the exhibition.
You’re exhibiting a video series called ‘The Superior Animal’ as part of Radical Ecologies – can you tell us a bit about it? What can we expect to see from you two?
‘The Superior Animal’ is a compilation of works which reflect the remorseless eco-sexual relationship humans impose upon animals. There was so much to convey that simply couldn't be expressed in a single work. We produced many works as part of the series, but settled for exhibiting just four of these works for Radical Ecologies, and these concern water-residing animals.
Aquatic animals allowed us to explore the most extricable socio-habitational distance. The public can expect to see us in uncomfortable positions with the animals. We hope to continue creating and exhibiting works of this nature within future exhibitions; further comprising mediums of photography and sculpture. The savage relationships we share with animals are complex and multi-dimensional, and we have found that different relationships can be scrutinised in the exploitation of different types of animals. We want to examine every possible dynamic.
Can you tell us about the process of making ‘The Superior Animal’?
The process began one day when we decided we might wear octopi on our heads to try to communicate telepathically with one another. We filmed it in my bathtub the very next day. From there we started to consider unconventional uses for animals which might present similar issues of animal injustice when compared to conventional animal utility. Mostly we just wanted to make people feel uncomfortable and to get them thinking about what that discomfort was about.
There is something called ‘moral dumbfounding’, which is a psychosocial phenomenon that leaves us disgusted by something without being able to morally justify that disgust, and we wanted to tap into that idea.
As artists we thrust ourselves into a space of vulnerability and degradation in the formation of these works. The discomfort we felt acted as a sort of penance for the sacrifice of the animals we expended. That's been a difficult debate for us along the way, but we have drawn on the doctrine of utilitarianism to justify the death of the animals we have purchased. In other words, we consider that the message we are trying to convey could outbalance any harm we have contributed.
Most of the works have been filmed at our respective houses, but we have had to travel from where we live in Perth to Sydney, to the only leech therapy clinic we could find in Australia. The leeches have an anti-congealing agent in their saliva, which left us bleeding from these ‘bullet-hole’ wounds for 48 hours straight, but we also wanted to go exploring. So we taped menstruation pads to our foreheads, chests and hands and went to a theme park. Peter's head started bleeding profusely, right through the pad, at a poshly café and it was hilarious. We must have looked pretty unhinged.
The octopi work was filmed in winter over a number of hours. As the work progressed the water became glacial and it was very hard to focus on communicating. There is a further work in which my face is submerged within a fish tank. We filmed this in Peter's garage, at midnight, at the New Year and I could hear the countdown, people shouting and the muffled fireworks as Peter grasped the hair on the back of my head and dunked my face violently into the water.
Our biggest physical challenge in this series was the filming of the work at the oyster farm. It was a 42 degree day in Broome and we had to walk barefoot across these blistering jagged rocks. We were bathed in thousands of heavy pearls and wearing eye contacts, which smothered our pupils, rendering us blind. I had a big pole up my back which was holding up an extravagant headdress, like a mitre. We couldn't wear sunblock because we had pearls glued to our skin. It was the worst. Feel sorry for us.
‘The Superior Animal’ challenges people to reconsider their relationships with the natural world and the beings that reside within it - human or otherwise. Can you speak a little bit about your personal connections to the natural world? To non-human beings?
When I was a kid I thought people grew up to become animals and I wanted to be a horse more than anything in the world. The teacher asked the students in the class to each draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up and I drew a horse. She ambled about the classroom looking at the pictures of the other children and when she came to my drawing she laughed and said I couldn't be a horse when I grew up. I thought she meant I wasn't good enough to be a horse. When Peter was a kid he took a trip to the zoo where he took photographs of the patrons rather than the animals in the cages. When we grew up in the culture and society we grew up in we lost these perceptions- and we maliciously surpassed those animals- and we became 'superior.' Together we have considered and reconsidered our relationship to the natural world, drawing on a social-constructionist epistemology. There is this modern estrangement with the animal world that we just don't see. There is no connection between the living thing and the utility anymore. When an animal is displaced or removed from its natural environment it becomes something non-sentient and instrumental.
Why have you chosen video as your primary medium?
Film is Peter’s forte, and mine is sound and set. It just seemed logical to combine our skills and abilities. We're both neurotic and hammy people, so we like to immerse ourselves in the uncomfortable, performative aspects of the works. I think it helps us to accept responsibility, or the part we each play, in the ideas we are presenting. We don't consider ourselves immune to engaging in acts of a morally crooked nature. This is as much a process of self-reflection as it is a process of social-cultural-political criticism. Film and sound-based works are able to transport the ideas we have to form a narrative. The narrative is something we find holds the attention of the public, because they want to know what happens in the end. In the end there is silence, darkness, and a space to briefly reflect in sensory deprivation.
How long have you been working together? Can you tell us a bit about yourselves, both individually and as a duo? What’s your dynamic like?
We’ve known each other for almost a year and we started making art together instantly. We began collaborating on a project called ‘Safe Sex’, which promotes the safe and liberal expression of sexuality. It's sort of our alternative, pop-artistic conception. Weeks after we met we took a trip to MONA together, as near strangers, and when we experienced the art we felt inspired to start to build our own artistic practice. The first thing we did was make a fake advertising company that sells unattainable items like clouds and the hair attached to another person's head.
Our relationship consists of 50% talking about and making serious art and 50% self-deprecating hilarity. We are both inspired by perceptions of common injustice and human corruption, and that seems to be the driving force behind everything sincere we create.
Individually Peter is a film artist and photographer, and I am a sound composer and postgraduate student of sexology and psychology. In the beginning we believed we weren't qualified to call ourselves artists, or to call what we we're making 'art', because neither of us have a formal education in fine art. We have since learned the value of our alternative disciplines and experiences. I think moving past that was one of our biggest hurdles. We get the sense a lot of people are making art without realising they're making art, because as a society we are often taught that we have to be sworn in or something. That's a filthy lie.
Radical Ecologies will be launched at the PICA Salon Vernissage, Saturday 30 July, 7pm.
Visit: pica.org.au for more information.