A review of Melinda Smith and Caren Florance's '1962: Be Spoken To', which was on display at M16 Artspace in the exhibition 'Lines of Site: Finding the Sublime in Canberra'.
Artistic collaboration, the intersected workings of two or more artists, does not always trek along smooth trails. From the mid-15thcentury legal proceedings of pupils against Squarcione, to the performative destruction of Ulay and Marina Abramovic, the intensity of creating between two makers can be a journey of hazard and risk. Given this, we might wonder why two people would choose the danger of working together.
Both Melinda Smith, a poet, and Caren Florance, a letterpress artist, recognised in each other an opportunity for fun when the chance to collaborate arose. While their work together has been driven by projects, it is the pleasure they take from sharing and observing each other’s methods that seems to push their artistic affiliation. They both take a comparable approach to creative work and the reality of being a working artist. Their circular and organic method is tempered with respect and humour. Sharing a style of collaboration that is organic and, as the years behind them show, sustainable.
Sometimes, the meeting of collaborators is happenstance, sometimes it is manifest. Basquiat, apparently, held a long adoration for Warhol years before he approached Warhol in a restaurant, and their then consequent introduction at the Factory. Duchamp called upon Man Ray at home where they played a game of informal tennis; an activity unconstrained by language barriers. Florance and Smith met through a mutual friend. While they had heard of each other, and each moved in similar creative circles, it was only after a social introduction that they realised how genuinely their interests were compatible and their complimentary skills well-matched.
One of the first projects Florance and Smith devised was in response to antique furnishings accommodated in Old Parliament House, now a museum for the history of democracy in Australia. Be Spoken To is in part inspired by the hand-lettered panel signs used in the House. It was also informed by the architecture of John Smith Murdoch and the history of the House (recall that the House did not install women’s’ toilets until the mid-1970s). Be Spoken To re-created panel signs using hand-printed wooden and metal type. The signs were a poetic and aesthetic response to tradition through being a playful and provocative comment on authority, masculinity and the frequency of nonsense in public politics.
The panel signs of Be Spoken To articulate the politics and playfulness of the collaborators. Each sign expresses the density of the poetic line while often also inciting mischief. For example there is a recurring use of homonyms, such as ‘member’ in its formal and informal uses. Moreover, each sign gives attention to symbol and icon such as, for example, the word ‘point’ accompanied by a hand-printed bishop’s fist (manicule).
The successful experience of working together and the inspiration each collaborator drew from the other spurred an extension of techniques used in Be Spoken To into another collaborative project, 1962: Be Spoken To, a limited edition artists’ book. The book holds a year-long cycle of Smith’s found parliamentary poems given life through Florance’s hand-set, hand-printed, hand-sewn work with the page.
The chapbook Members Only (Recent Work Press and Ampersand Duck) extends these works yet, cannot, however, seize the literal ‘bespoke’ elements of the work. Unlike some artists, and artists’ books, Smith and Florance agree that the haptic elements of the work are vital to understanding the work. Books are meant to be read, held and treasured. To this end, the book pages are free to be turned, touched, interrogated and enjoyed within the current exhibition, Lines of Site, on display at M16 until 3 September. The works are worth a visit not only for evidence of successful collaboration but also for a turn through the pages of our idiosyncratic and word-spoken political history.
M16 Writer in Residence 2017