Dr Alex Martinis Roe is the newly appointed Senior Lecturer and Head of Sculpture at The School of Art and Design. Her research interests include the political role of knowledge practices in Art. Her current project To Become Two focuses on genealogy amongst feminist practices.
Miriam Sadler sat down with her on a wintry Tuesday morning to discuss everything from moving to Canberra, art and social activism, to entertainment on a desert island.
How are you finding Canberra?
I’ve been here four months now. I just came back from a visit to Europe so I’m still trying to keep my life there going to some extent. I have to say I feel like I’m on a retreat, it’s just beautiful here. There are kangaroos everywhere. I think probably the most interesting thing about ANU is the fact that it’s quite a tight-knit small community – well it feels like that anyway, I have no idea how many people are actually here. I keep having these really amazing encounters with people from other disciplines, which was one real attraction for me in coming here and then it has actually been happening.
People have contacted me from other disciplines. “Oh we’ve heard about your appointment would you like to meet’ and then we’ve had these amazing discussions.” I’ve met people from the law faculty, from some of the natural sciences and then the humanities. It’s been very diverse and I’m really excited about that.
What are you most excited about in your new role and working in this Art school?
Bringing about more relationships between the Art school and other parts of the university. I’m really interested in, for example, how the School of Art can participate in the research schools that we’re already connected with in the same faculty. Where does the school of art fit? I’m quite interested in how we might enter those more transdisciplinary spaces and what kind of research conversations can we be a part of. I’m also really keen to rework curriculum. That’s a huge adventure and opportunity, and a very creative project: to take a program and look at how I think it should be in the years coming and designing that.
It is quite rare to hear people talking about PhDs in Art. What was your inspiration behind studying art, and even doing higher degree research in Art? Was it a lightbulb moment or was it that you were always a creative person?
I think I was always very committed to politics, but because my parents were activists, and involved in day to day politics, I just didn’t want to have to live with that level of compromise. Art seemed to me to be a very urgent place to become an activist and a place where I could do whatever I wanted. And that could become public, and so I felt like that was a very free place to engage in shaping our society.
I’ve always sort of approached artistic practice in a way that was quite related to humanities methods. It was a place where I could undertake that same research but without the given formats. So for me, doing a PhD made a lot of sense. For some artists it’s not the most conducive framework but for me, it was necessary. I think it takes far longer to become an artist than four years, I needed another four years – I think most people need another four years. And that was a very good framework for me to do it in. I was always quite ambitious about answering complex questions with my work and doing a PhD was a good way to develop that.
Talking with a lot of students here at the ANU, they said ‘Oh I did art in high school but I didn’t think it would translate into something I could do in adult life’. What is the value, for you, in taking an Art Degree?
People in Europe don’t have the same problem. They look at art as a viable profession. In Germany, where I’ve spent the last nine years, six-year-old children are completely aware of contemporary art. They see a lot of it and they think that this is an actual career with a lot of respect attached to it. At openings of my work in Europe, quite often you’ll have a really intellectual conversation with a very involved person who you’ve never met before and you’ll find out they’re an engineer or something. That’s just normal. And people treat you with a huge amount of respect. Whereas in Australia, I remember as a young person I started to say very tentatively “I am an artist”, and quite often be met with the question “but what’s your real job?” A lot of disrespect really, and I think that’s probably why it might not occur to you that it was a career. I don’t think it has to stay that way. I think it’s very much about what value we all place on art.
I think the art school here also has a history of producing graduates who go on to do a range of things. It’s quite similar to a Bachelor of Arts in that it teaches you to think. You can take that and use that ability in a range of ways. I think becoming an artist is a very complex undertaking, a very difficult thing to do. It also can be very rewarding. The art world is like a little microcosm of our society: it has a huge amount of problems in it – all of the hegemonies of our society are in it. But then, on the other hand, there are many art worlds. I’m very committed to an international community of people who see art as a way to really change cultural values and see museums as being these spaces that present what our societies value. Up until recently, you’d enter an art museum and what you’d see there presented to you are old white men with a whole lot of authority staring out at you. No surprise what kind of societies those pictures both formed and came from. And yet now, there are more and more examples of feminist and de-colonial art practices which have a real platform and which do change the way people think about embodiment, politics, all sorts of questions that are very fundamental to the way that we see ourselves. If you’re involved in activism in politics or in NGOs, quite often the questions that you’re asking are much more about an urgent thing that has to be dealt with right now. Whereas, the questions that art addresses are often the very deepest things, the long-term structures. It’s quite similar to the humanities in that way, but then the humanities stay so much within their own realm. Art is a public forum. It’s very much about communicating with a broad range of people.
I am very interested in your work that is with regard to feminist practices. How does art enhance the recounting of women’s stories? Especially in the forms you’ve used in your To Become Two project?
First of all, the profession of being an artist is a very modern thing. It didn’t exist in the same way in the Middle Ages. The whole concentration in modernity on the formation of the singular subject is very connected to feminism. Of course, on the negative side it has led to rampant individualism which drives capitalism. But, on the other hand, it has led to a real belief in the value and importance of singularity and not focusing on pre-given structures – we have a whole lot more social mobility out of that. I think art is the field where the subject is displayed, but also formed. The artist is almost like a picture of who we understand this modern subject to be, because of the figure of the artist and the fact that art comes from this solo position.
With feminism – it’s very complex and there’s lot of different feminisms – but one of the most dominant projects has been to produce a female subjectivity. I think women participating in writing, in art production, in forming themselves publicly, are crucial to that project. It begins with letter-writing in the early modern period, self-portraiture and things like that, and modern and contemporary art are really a continuation of that same project of self-formation.
With regard to art and the project of forming a subjectivity, the main focus of my project To Become Two, is on spaces between subjects: it’s not about the individual but really about the formation of singularity in relation to others. Part of the imagined audience for To Become Two are feminist academics. I think it’s really accessible to a lot of people but I wanted to make a reply, or a reminder, to the feminist theorists who had formed me through reading. I thought about a lot of the ideas contained in their works thought that there is still so much to be done in terms of situating their ideas. The format of the monograph was really what I wanted to trouble – it’s insufficient. I wanted this project to explore a social history of ideas. The way that relationships form concepts and practices. The project is an exploration of how certain key concepts and practices have been formed through their migration, elaboration and transfer across different communities and also within them.
This focus on relational selfhood in feminism bas come out of a longer endeavour on my part to produce an artistic subjectivity that is not one. I keep my name. A lot of artists might choose to form a collective in order to make a statement about solo artist authorship. But I felt like that didn’t really deconstruct this whole emphasis on the solo artist genius. It presents an alternative which, in reality, often gets treated pretty much the same. And also, because of the kinds of political organising that I’m interested in, which is not a kind of blanket horizontalism, I look at the importance of different voices, and what I call “solidarity-in-difference,” or “collective difference.” I’ve kept the artist’s name for my productions, but all my work is really about showing the many voices that are within my own – the many collaborations that are implicit in producing any creative work. I think that is, on a content level and also on a structural level, how I’ve tried to engage in feminist politics through this project.
I know that you lived in Berlin for nine years, and you spoke before about there being flexibility to be an artist in Europe and people actually engaging from a whole host of backgrounds. Do you think that’s something that you will attempt to translate to Australian students?
Absolutely, although I think my capacity to do that as one person is seriously limited! One of my main approaches to teaching is to be open-minded and to respond differently to different students and their different interests and desires. But I do really believe in artists’ responsibility. I see us as social actors: people who participate in society and who are not separate from it. I think that’s a position I teach with too. Certainly a lot of art is taught as a kind of exception to the world, something that comments on it but is not part of it. And I really don’t agree with that at all. Because I see its politics and I see how performative it is. You see a landscape painting, which seems apolitical, in a museum and it changes the way people understand the world around them, it really does. I can’t give that up, that perspective, and I think that is something that I had even before I went to Europe, but being in Berlin, which is a very politicised art scene, really confirmed to me that I should propagate that.
I ask students to think about the relevance of what they do and the impact of what they do, rather than seeing what they do as some isolated criticism. I think having that attitude to your work gives you an authority. What you do matters, so then if you believe that I think other people will recognise that, too. That understanding of art’s social role has to come from elsewhere too. I would absolutely love to get involved in what is taught in high schools, for example – I don’t know how or when – but I think teaching aesthetics and politics together needs to start earlier. We lose time at university on groundwork which could and should happen in other contexts, because it’s not only art students who should understand the value and social impact of art practice.
Can I ask you a fun question now? You’re on a desert island and you can take one film and one novel. What are they?
It’s a difficult scenario because on a desert island I would be alone. And so it would be purely about entertainment and I don’t really see my artistic practices relating to myself in that way. I almost think that nothing I would take would be worth talking about, in terms of my own approach to art. I think it’s private. But I should be able to answer this. If you asked me three things I’d promote, if this is the function of the question, then I can answer that.
There’s a film called Scuola senza fine by Adriana Monti, documenting a group of women telling their stories as a form of listening. It was made in the early 80’s, in Milan, about the 150 hours school, which was set up by the Italian Left for factory workers and domestic labourers, i.e. housewives. They would meet in each other’s houses in the evenings, or whenever they had time, and they would study things that had no vocational use in their current occupation. You could learn physics if you felt like it, or you could study literature. This group of women undertook (auto)biographical narration as their field of study. That is just such a fantastic film.
Okay a novel, I really love Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, it’s a really great trilogy. I can’t answer for the music. It’s the sort of question you get asked in fashion art magazines and its always about the production of your hip-cool factor. I’m not anti-fashion, I love aspects of fashion – I like the endeavour of creating bodily adornments as a cultural language, for example, but I’m just so uninterested in the production of that kind of hype around who I might be.
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