An Inside Look into an Inside Job
originally published in Runway: Australian Experimental Art Magazine, Issue #28

View the original text here.

If you visited NEW15, ACCA’s annual exhibition of emerging artists from Australia and New Zealand, chances are you were met with a shrug from one of the invigilators in the gallery.[1] Whether it was during a small interaction, a greeting, or mid-conversation, the invigilator would have shrugged at you at least once. I was one of these shruggers.

We were not disinterested in our jobs, and definitely weren’t being disdainful or dismissive through the act. Rather, the shrug was presented as an element within Jessie Bullivant’s Inside Job.[2]Following a training session in which the concepts of the work were mulled over and rehearsed, we were given the rules of the job: we were required to shrug at some point within every interaction in the gallery space. How this shrug was presented—when within a conversation, and how many times—was ours to decide. We were given agency over the physical manifestation of the work. Alongside the shrug, Inside Job also presented advertising boards around the city and magazine advertisements of shrugging stock photos, enhancing the further narrative of the work through the expectations these advertisements created.

The shrug was a delegated performance, an action or performed gesture in which the artist relinquishes themselves from the physical act of doing (the labour, energy), a style fitting easily within the oeuvre of Bullivant’s practice. In Direct Aerial Work (2011), her graduation piece at RMIT, she hired a helicopter to hover over the university for the duration of the opening festivities; for How to fold a fitted sheet (2014) at TCB Art Inc.[3] canvases were left in the door grate, urinated on by alley toilet-goers, and hung upon the wall, abstract stains presented as site-responsive compositions. Bullivant is an artist interested in the extended artist’s hand, in the use of others and their energy in the creation of work, creating a high degree of chance and movement of agency within a work.

I’ll return to this extended agency through anecdotal examples in a moment. For now, it’s interesting to further consider Inside Job as a performed job, an employment of sorts. Automatically, the link between advertising stock photos and performed action highlights the nature of the shrug as paid labour. Further, this labour can be considered in relation to ‘social choreography’a concept explicated by Andrew Hewitt in his text of the same name.[4]His arguments are focused towards choreography not as an essentially metaphysical phenomenon, oriented instead towards choreography as representative of social and political intersubjectivity.

As he argues, shifts within choreography, and modern dance, are representative of the social turns of modernism, the industrial revolution and the consequent late-Capitalism of today. Particularly, Hewitt explores the movement of modern dance away from dance as ‘play’ to dance as ‘work’. Quite literally, the physical exertion of the performers becomes the propelling element of dance and choreographed movement. His arguments explore the way in which this focus on labour exemplifies broader socio-political order, and its affect on the body. From this perspective of choreographed labour, the delegated shrug became a balancing gesture (physically and conceptually) nestled somewhere between the natural and performed movement imposed upon the body within the economic transaction at play.   

Shrugging is a movement tied to a feeling of apathy, discontent, or lack of knowledge. It is a conversational movement, often enacted unknowingly, an expressive form of communication beyond the confines of verbal language. Considered within the gallery context, conversations are moments of engagement with power dynamics at play. Invigilators are in the gallery as walking information boards—artists/students/curators equipped with detailed knowledge regarding the exhibition presented. It is expected that they know more about the art on display than the visitor. The shrug in this context, performed by a person whose job is to actively hold conversations and pass on information regarding the artworks on display, begins to question the power play taking place.

When a person in a position of power (power here based on knowledge) presents a shrug mid-conversation the dynamics of power are recalibrated, the movement becoming almost contradictory. While employed to offer assistance and information, we were also, through the physical act of shrugging, removing ourselves from this position of authority. There were times when this contradiction was received negatively, other times in a more positive light.  Viewed positively as a gesture of modesty, the shrug allowed for a level playing field, translating as ‘I know as much as you,’ or ‘I’m not imposing my thought over your’s as a stronger opinion.’ This even lead to some people, consciously and unconsciously, shrugging along. This mimicry of the shrug highlighted the affect our deliberate manipulation of our body language had, shifting the body language of the overall conversation.

Then there were those who knew (or thought they knew) what they were in for. Having seen the advertisements around town and on the back of arts magazines, they were the people that came in with a clear sense of expectation. These visitors watched us with a keen eye, waiting for the ‘performance’ to happen. This was clearest once, when a group of people walked in and instantly turned to stare and observe, waiting to catch the shrug in action. This is an interesting expectation. The shrug is, in the end, not that impressive a gesture. No matter how vigorously you bounce your shoulders up and down, there’s not that much to it physically, and, if there is, it quite quickly becomes excess theatre or a really badly executed shoulder shimmy. In these moments, the power was more in the subtle shrug, the quick little one-sided dip.

Then there were the moments when the shrug was received negatively, the moments where the contradiction of a friendly sentence and a disingenuous physical gesture came to the forefront. This was particularly apparent with visitors who felt a disconnect between themselves and the artworks presented in NEW15. From speaking to visitors, and watching responses to works, more often than not, NEW15 was seen as a rather closed-off affair; it was viewed as an exhibition of concepts over objects.

As an example, Kate Newby’s And they kicked her out of New York City (George, Richard, Jessie, Kate, Ash, Paul, Alex and Adelle) (2015) existed for most visitors only as hearsay, cast silver, ceramic and bronze forms hidden away in the pockets of the exhibiting artists.[5] George Egerton Warburton’s Foul Mouth existed in the gallery only as documentation, having been installed on the trees of Agnes Denes’ A Forest for Australia (2015) out in Altona.[6]Egerton-Warburton also presented Eucalpytus Standard (2015) one of Denes’ fallen trees laid in a bed purchased from classifieds site Gumtree, and a second bed face down upon the gallery floor.[7] Adelle Mills’ Moving through phone (2015) presented a series of mirrored past actions, filmed, copied from phone, then again and again in a layering of performance and rehearsal that removed visitors’ engagement or understanding of the processes and artistic rationale.[8] Viewed together, these conceptually layered works were viewed less for these concepts, and more for their lack of accessibility for the everyday visitor.

Inside Job, as a performance reliant upon direct audience engagement, was at times quite clearly affected by this perceived distance between audience and artwork within NEW15. The shrug, in this reading of the exhibition, came across more as an inside joke than an inside job: ‘we have the information, but we’re refusing to give you any.’ These were moments where, no matter the style or timing of the shrug, it was seen as stand-offish and, at times, even a little rude. In these encounters was a clear reminder that the context and framing of an artwork shapes its reading. Through its variety of visitor responses, Inside Job, as a choreographed act within the gallery system, came to reveal the mechanics of the public institution whether or not this was Bullivant’s intention. 

[1] NEW15, curated by Matt Hinkley, 14 March – 17 May 2015, The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Exhibited Artists: Paul Bai, Jessie Bullivant, George Egerton-Warburton, Richard Frater, Ash Kilmartin, Adelle Mills, Kate Newby, Alex Vivian.

[2] Jessie Bullivant, Inside Job, 2015, Shrug performed by invigilators, 8 stock images used in advertising for NEW15.

[3] Jessie Bullivant, Direct Aerial Work, 2011, event, helicopter; Jessie Bullivant, Waratah Oxidation painting (in 8 parts) Acrylic medium, copper pigment and urine on canvas, 2014, each canvas was left in the Waratah place entrance to TCB overnight. Urine provided by unknown contributors on June 1, 20 and 23 2014. 172 x 324cm.

[4] Hewitt, Andrew. Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement. Duke University Press, 2005.

[5] Kate Newby, And they kicked her out of New York City (George, Richard, Jessie, Kate, Ash, Paul, Alex and Adelle), 2015 cast silver and bronze, ceramics, dimensions variable.

[6] George Egerton-Warburton, Foul Mouth, 2015, four framed woodblock prints each 60 x 80cm, installed on trees at Agnes Denes’ A Forest for Australia, planted in 1998 on Altona Treatment Plant.

[7] George Egerton-Warburton, Eucalyptus Standard, 2015, two beds bought from “gumtree”, a fallen tree from A Forest for Australia by Agnes Denes, television with HD video, 1:08 minutes, text.

[8] Adelle Mills, moving through phone, 2015, 12:30 minutes silent, with Jimmy Nuttall and Lauren Burrow.