I’m Worried This Will Become a Memory: Art and Activism in the Work of Raquel Oremella —
Raquel Ormella’s best known bodies of work are arguably those that most immediately engage the language and aesthetics of activism. Emblematic of Ormella’s critical consideration of the role of the artist in relation to broader social questions are the two- sided banners of I’m worried this will become a slogan 1999–2009 and the artist’s trilogy of permanent marker on whiteboard installations (2005–08), which developed out of long-term engagement with Wilderness
Society campaigns. Both series have found prominent exhibition platforms and substantial critical discussion. They record political gestures and long-term projects relevant to the time of their production – exemplary individual actions alongside the apparently personal doubts of the former and committed collective work in the case of the latter. What does it mean, then, for these works to persist into the present, and by extension, the future, when their reference points are so clearly situated in the past? And what might the passage of time imply for the artist’s current work?
The first banners in the I’m worried this will become a slogan series were produced in Sydney in 1999, and their double-faced design seems appropriate to the contradictions of that time and place. The city had not yet become an orgy of real estate speculation and petit bourgeois aspiration – not completely, anyway – and it was possible to occupy spaces within the urban geography to articulate alternative visions for the community. But John Howard’s re-election the previous year had cemented his conservative social agenda and its attendant nationalist symbolism in the public imagination, and a sense of frustration inflected progressive conversations about society, culture and the environment. ‘I’m worried I’m not political enough’ – with its two pronouns situating self as subject and object, and its matter-of-fact phrasing aligning with a history of conceptual instructional pieces – articulates a personal uncertainty that can be located in what was a contestable but decidedly implacable leaning of Australia’s social imaginary to the political right.
More than that, though, Ormella’s banners speak for themselves, as works of art. They are too absurd to be mistaken for actual political paraphernalia. Their hand- cut, hand-sewn lettering is cleanly done, but by no means professional in appearance. The way the texts crowd to the right, squeezing into the spaces left clear by the texts on the opposite sides – so that the thread doesn’t overlap, basically – is clever, funny and at the same time commonsensical. The banners sag affectingly, a potential distraction that nonetheless amplifies the pathos of the doubts they express as to sufficient radicalism or political engagement. Their materiality emphasises their status as objects of art, and their misgivings can therefore be read as offered on their own behalf, and on behalf of
art in general. What can art really do when it comes to confronting the awesome problems of racialised dispossession, social marginalisation and irreparable environmental exploitation?
The banners’ flip sides, meanwhile, present lofty instances of personal commitment gleaned from real-world events. But interestingly, in examples like ‘Xanana Gusmao’s son has a tattoo of his father’s face on his chest’ and ‘Paul Kelleher lopped the head off the Margaret Thatcher statue because he didn’t want it to enter the Houses of Parliament without the mark of the people’, the actions described occupy an aesthetic field shared by art, where social meaning – whether relating to fidelity or public representation – is invested in symbols and material forms. There is potential for broader significance here, even if it is only ever signalled; there is hope for art. Some of these snippets stray into the past tense, contrasting with what Ormella describes as the ‘continually present moment’ of the doubts filling out the margins of the works’ opposite sides; others feel cut from a larger narrative. Certainly it was once possible to read these texts within their immediate contexts, namely the East Timorese independence referendum and crisis of 1999 and Kelleher’s 2002 work of popular performance vandalism, events that are now part of a dim collective memory. Even their origins seem distant, the artist noting that the phrases started out as moments of ‘personal intensity’ encountered while poring over the daily paper, a form of press consumption that has itself been rendered rare by the 24-hour news cycle, social media and smartphone alerts. But these moments were situated in the past from the outset, and their persistence within objects of art preserves these exemplary actions as topics for
potential investigation, discussion and reflection. They maintain a presence, are given an afterlife, or at least remain available for the curious as the flip side of art’s uncertainties about itself.
The march of technology, and of time that distances us from events, is also apparent in the unusual medium of Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney 2008. Printable whiteboards, a once-enviable fixture of seminar rooms, white-collar workplaces and community workshops, have been outmoded by short-throw projectors, touchscreen technology and real-time sharing. Indeed, they were already headed for obsolescence when Ormella first selected them as the ground for two marker-pen drawings in Poster reduction 2005–08, which depicted the Wilderness Society’s Hobart offices and campaign materials as the organisation defended itself against legal action from a logging company. 130 Davey Street 2004–05 presented a more multi- layered investigation of the same spaces and their carefully determined aesthetic productions on an
array of conventional whiteboards, but the electronic versions returned for Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney with an interactive element; audiences could print out and take home thermal paper versions of Ormella’s permanent marker drawings of Wilderness Society offices in the titular cities.
The appearance of this outmoded technology in Ormella’s work should not be read as an appeal to curiosity or even simple nostalgia. As with I’m worried this will become a slogan, there is a poetic relationship between subject and medium. At a decade’s remove, due to the passing of a key Wilderness Society member and cheaper airfares that enable greater mobility, the Cairns office no longer exists. The Wild
Rivers Act, created in 2005 by the Queensland Labor administration to protect the flow of water in Cape York rivers from intensive agricultural and industrial exploitation, and defended by the Wilderness Society in the face of business and community debates that touched on complex issues of Indigenous sovereignty, was repealed by Campbell Newman’s LNP government in 2014. Ormella’s permanent marker panoramas of campaign offices, with their focus on the placement of environmental imagery, are records of a political process that, no matter how complicated its actuality or long-sighted its vision, would at a certain point in time play out, disperse and reconfigure amid shifting stakes and terrains. Even the cluttered spaces, with their jumbles of equipment interspersed with slogans such as ‘LAST CHANCE’ and ‘SAVE CAPE YORK’ are a thing of the past, as the Wilderness Society has since adopted a neutral ‘corporate’
image and attendant mode of workplace organisation. Thermal-print whiteboards would undoubtedly be an archaic nuisance in such offices. The space of art occupied by Ormella’s whiteboards is precisely what enables reflection of the aesthetic manifestations of such concerted, collective political work, whether as rigorously workshopped campaign materials or outward reflections of professional standards.
It is tempting to interpret obsolescence as a metaphor for extinction. And it is perhaps all too easy for a consideration of two decades of Ormella’s art-making to burden the artist’s newest productions with the existential piquancy that some of her better-known works have accumulated over time. Yet this is the crux of her artist’s book, performance and installation project City without crows 2016–18. Alongside lush material explorations of the rhetoric and imagery of
Australia’s resource extraction industries, Ormella has over the last decade developed a body of documentation, multiples, installations and videos concerning relationships between humans and animals, and in particular the impact of human behaviour on birdlife. Originally developed as an ‘experimental conference paper’, City without crows was first staged for an activist audience in Yogyakarta. The work created encounters with the sonic spaces created by birds in the context of the absence of crows in that city due to their popularity as pets; the trade in birds rates only second to habitat destruction as a driver of extinction in Indonesia. As the work has developed, performed again in Sydney in 2017 as part of The National,1 a survey of recent Australian practice, and subsequently configured as an installation, Ormella has sought to find points of connection between Australia and Indonesia in the process of extinction, across a border that, as an accompanying text drawing makes clear, ‘birds don’t acknowledge’.
Art, Ormella recently noted in an academic presentation of City without crows, creates spaces for conversation by diverse publics, enabling the production of complex, multi-layered readings. It also operates at cognitive and temporal registers that are distinct from the noise of media debate. It may lack the immediacy and force of political language and the elevated stakes of radicalism, but it is not without value to an ethical, activist approach to the world, as nuances flatten and discourses simplify in an increasingly demanding mediascape. The unfolding of time around Ormella’s works, especially those that most closely approach activism, offers possibilities for relativising doubt, for preserving transitory moments of personal and collective intensity, and for deepening already rich fields of meaning and conjecture. Like its predecessors, City without crows raises observations and opportunities for contact in the time we have left, which is not without its urgencies, but which remains time in which research and debate can take place, and in which redundancies can occur while things of real value are preserved, not out of nostalgia for things past, but for times and places to come.
1. The National 2017: new Australian art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 30 March – 16 July 2017. City without crows was performed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 31 May, 3 June and 4 June 2017, with dramaturgy by Nikki Heywood.