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For the 21st Biennale of Sydney, artist Ciara Phillips is creating a collaborative printmaking studio, posters from which will run each week in The Saturday Paper. She talks about the role of art in social change. “I find it really difficult to explain: how do you make art? Basically it’s the sum total of all the things I think about.”

By Sarah Price.

Ciara Phillips’ Biennale workshop

Ciara Phillips, centre, at her MCA Young Guides installation.
Credit: Daniel Boud

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is busy. From the eastern side of the building, at the green edge of Circular Quay, there is a constant flow of people up and down the concrete stairs, through to the galleries and the store, to the western side, where the angled walkway meets the footpath on George Street. Visitors come in pairs and in groups. Some are on their own. A teenage boy appears in a singlet and shorts. Behind him, tourists move with daypacks strapped to their backs. There’s the slow drift of older people, and a mother pushing an oversized pram. At the closed door to a gallery, a couple stops and stares. On the door is a poster: “Every Woman a Signal Tower”.

Inside, printmaker and collaborative artist Ciara Phillips is preparing her project for the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Scattered around the room are screens, brushes, drying racks. In the middle of the room is a printing press and an unopened crate from Phillips’ studio in Scotland. There’s a tall stepladder and a motorised scissor lift. Tables are covered in tools: hammers and chisels, tape measures, earmuffs and electric drills, a red-handled axe. Phillips is in the process of laying down the project’s wall painting of geometric designs in black, bright green and blue, bordered by clean, crisp lines.

Standing here, Phillips runs her plait through her hand and lets it drop down her back. Her T-shirt printed in large letters reads: APATHY KILLS. Around her wrists she wears silver bangles and, on her fingers, stains of paint. In a soft Canadian accent, she tells me that the geometric designs are a new development in her work. They echo the simple gestures that happen in the printmaking, “that have to do with things like the limits of a rectangle”. The room’s “double-heighted” walls, she says, give her the opportunity to do something that is very physical. “I got excited when I arrived and saw the space. Right now it feels quite big and echoey, but if you imagine me working in here with 15 other people, plus an audience, it will feel quite full.”

The gallery is being transformed into a print studio, in which Phillips will work alongside groups of women she has invited to take part. The expectation is around activity. The entire space, with people working and the public coming in and out, will be considered part of the work. More of the work will run each week in The Saturday Paper, its pages a new public space for art.

To begin, Phillips has made woodcuts to hang over the base of the painted walls: twisting or tying paper in knots, then inking it up before printing it. These are small gestures with easy materials, she says, to be expanded on a bigger scale throughout the room. The project will be a work in progress throughout the biennale, with Phillips and her invitees building on it, layer by layer.

To work with her, Phillips has invited a class from Liverpool Girls High School, women from the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, a group of Afghan women from the New South Wales Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, and printmakers from Big Fag Press, an artist-run printing collective. “I am very interested in working with women and talking to them about having a voice. I think that feels important everywhere,” she says. “In this instance it is different generations, and that is interesting to me – all these varied voices. I like the vestiges of what happens, with one group’s work being visible to another group, so it becomes this complex mix of different perspectives which are shared with the audience, but also within the groups.”

With each group, Phillips will start by talking about things she has done in her own work, before asking people to introduce to her what they care about. In the past few years she has felt an “urgency” from people, she says. What they are willing to talk about has felt different, more pressing. Discussion brings about new ideas for new artworks, she tells me. “It is about the practicality of: how do you bring all these voices together? How do you make that happen? And it’s quite literally me drawing stuff out, writing stuff down that everyone can see. Then we have a point of reference and we can figure out what we want to do.”       

She continues: “I don’t come with a project. It’s really important to me that it’s a process of shared learning. It’s also important that I am not presenting myself within that context as a totally neutral person who’s a facilitator of other people’s ideas, because I’m not. I have a real stake in it. I think a lot about art and how it works in the world, and how it looks, and all of the things that matter to me. I don’t try and push myself into a different role. That’s partly also why I have my work up when the show starts. There’s a kind of frisson between those things being together.”

Throughout the biennale The Saturday Paper will be a platform for Phillips’ project, reproducing the work as it unfolds over 13 weeks. The decision about which pieces to publish will be part of her discussion with the groups, reflecting their collaborative work. “It will be like a charge thing: What does it mean to have something that’s going to be in the paper? I will enjoy asking that question, and, how are we going to do it? How do we want to negotiate that? The gallery setting is very visible, but the paper is a place where things can be shown in a different public way. It will be exciting to have the project meted out in weeks to a different public.”

Setting up a temporary print studio and inviting people to work with her is something Phillips has been doing for a number of years. In a previous project, Workshop in London, she collaborated with a group of domestic migrant workers, Justice for Domestic Workers. After teaching the mostly female group how to print, Phillips helped them to produce a banner: “No 2 Slavery”. The banner was both art and protest, and was used by the group in marches campaigning for more rights and better working conditions. The project contributed to Phillips’ nomination for the Turner Prize at London’s Tate gallery, for which she was shortlisted for work incorporating screen-printing, photography and textiles. Being nominated for the Turner changed her visibility as an artist, she says. “It made it easier for me to live. I have more opportunities to do shows. I am still doing shows that I really want to be doing and I don’t feel I have to compromise, or work with the market.”

In 2016 she was commissioned to create a design for a “dazzle ship” – navy vessels with highly contrasted geometric camouflage meant to confuse combatants – celebrating the untold stories of women during World War I. The work, “Every Woman: Dazzle Ship Scotland”, covered the entire surface of a 72-metre-long ship. “I use semaphore, a naval signalling system, as a coded language in relation to the female body. The dazzle ship had a coded message in it, which was ‘every woman a signal tower’ in Morse code. Those hidden or coded languages are set in relationship to women’s experience – like systems that have needed to be used to communicate in other ways. That’s the role they play in the work. The context of the dazzle ship was quite specific, but within that it was nice for me to be able to find a story that hadn’t really been told, and felt close to me. It was the story of women recruited from art schools from all around Britain to paint dazzle designs under [British marine artist] Norman Wilkinson’s guidance. I was able to use that history to be able to speak to a present moment, and make a work that operated on different levels.”

      

When Phillips initially went to university to study politics, she realised what she missed about art: that it gave her the freedom to think about all manner of subjects relating to the world. “I didn’t feel that at all in politics; it felt like a much more rigid structure for learning.”

She believes the aesthetic and the political coexist, and that printmaking has a role in social change. Through a process, and in a space, it brings people together to do something. “I feel how valuable it can be, to kind of open up thinking or make people feel empowered to do things themselves, and to continue on doing things after we’ve worked together. Printmaking was the revolution of information sharing when it occurred, and that’s a really interesting thing in the context of now, when we are going through this major shift – what is available to us information-wise, and how that is impacting on who we are as people, and on our relationships. When I started in art, I really didn’t have any idea what an artist was for a very long time. I didn’t know what it was to be an artist, how you find your way into doing that.”

Artists are generally filled with a lot of doubt, she says. It is difficult to sustain yourself, to work in multiple jobs while trying to keep your studio work going. “I am still figuring it out. It wasn’t like it suddenly got easy. What did change was that there was a moment where I felt like I could call myself an artist with legitimacy in my own mind. I just thought: I am doing this now, it is what I am doing, it is what I am really committed to.”

Art is present everywhere in the human experience, Phillips says. It is fundamental and everyone should have access to it. She now mostly works with women’s groups, and it is the feminist perspective that underlies how she thinks about what she is doing. “I’ve been feminist all my life, but I think I feel more as I get older and progress in my career, I can feel the constraints a bit more acutely. Maybe for some time I didn’t allow that to rise to the top or become the issue of the work. Now, I do that more.”

As we talk, a woman rolls forward in the scissor lift and begins painting wall space at the ceiling’s edge. Phillips points to another section of wall, where she has spread blackboard paint, “to give visitors to the show some sense of the discussions that have been happening”. A wooden floor has been laid to demarcate the working area, allowing enough space for the audience to circumnavigate the whole room. Hanging around the perimeter of the workspace will be three large banners, lowered at times, raised at others. The banners will be digitally printed on one side, and screen-printed with a grey check on the other. “The check is reminiscent of when you work in Photoshop,” Phillips explains. “The colours I am using are kind of hinting towards a digital space or a screen space. I want it to reflect something of the process of working in layers digitally, with things overlapping in certain ways, butting up against one another.”                              

Working on her own in Glasgow, Phillips takes photographs to discover object and pause. Her subjects can be very simple things: a glass bottle with the light shining on it, an article of clothing, her kitchen light photographed from underneath. She describes them as reflective moments. “Those things are from my private space, when I’m on my own. Quiet moments are very important as a counter to what I’m doing here, which is active and all about verbal negotiation. My own work is all internal negotiation. It doesn’t require me to speak it out loud.”

There is a messiness within her process that rejects a binary way of working, Phillips says. Questions around being an individual artist or a collaborative artist, around public or private spaces, are deliberately confused. She likes to build her art in layers, not knowing where it will finish. Improvisation, and being open to change and to surprise, keeps the questions in the work alive. “I find it really difficult to explain: how do you make art?” she says. “Basically it’s the sum total of all the things I think about. It is like a challenge to myself, and can be dependent on so many things, like how I feel on a particular day. It’s hard to account for all the decisions because there are so many, even if a work looks simple.”

 

Prints from Ciara Phillips Workshop at MCA will run each week in The Saturday Paper.

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Prints media".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.