For visual artist and theatre lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis, a photograph of a 1970 gay rights protester is a continuing inspiration. By Maddee Clark.
Katie Sfetkidis is a multidisciplinary artist and lighting designer. Her work explores feminist and political histories and their impact on the contemporary lives of women, and she is interested in the role of the artist in public life. Her most notable public artworks include A Feminist Poster Project (2021); Dear Minister (2019) and The Mayor Project (2018). In 2020, Katie was appointed the Feminist Emissary for the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, where her work is currently on show in PRESENT / MEMORY, an exhibition of new artworks based on interviews with Victorian women and non-binary people.
She has chosen to discuss Donna Gottschalk Holds Poster at Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade, New York 1970 by Diana Davies.
Tell me about this work.
This photograph is of a young woman at a queer rights protest in New York. I’ve had it pinned up in my studio for about five or six years now. It’s travelled with me through all the different studios I’ve had in that time; I always pin it up wherever I’m working.
I came across it while reading an interview by Sharon Hayes, an American artist who reperforms protest movements, and I’d always thought that it was Hayes in the photograph re-enacting a protest scene. But it’s a photograph of Donna Gottschalk. Hayes became fascinated by the original image and has used the text of the sign as the title of one of her works from 2008.
There are many layers of authorship here: Diana Davies as the photographer, Donna Gottschalk as the subject/author of the sign, and then Sharon Hayes’s use of the sign in her work, which is your point of contact with it?
Recently I realised not only is it not Hayes in the photo, but that the woman in the photograph is also an artist in her own right, a lesbian photographer who documented gay rights movements and queer culture in America in the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve been thinking about all these layers of that image alongside my own changing relationship to it over time.
There’s a woman in the background looking at her in complete shock, like, “What are you doing?!” There’s something about that look which also played into my assumption that it was a performance, like an audience reaction. It reminded me of the responses I’ve had to my own work.
Do you take protest photography yourself?
No, but I collect protest photographs, and it’s an artform I’ve always been sort of drawn to. I attend rallies and I live in the CBD, so it feels like a big part of everyday life and I’m interested in the communal aspect of it. But then, in my own work, I always just want to be on my own. Sharon Hayes’s work has interested and influenced me because she’s engaging with protest movement histories but she also performs her work as a solo actor. That speaks so much to my own activism and my artistic work.
I think a lot about protesting and what it means now. I think it’s really changed. Protest photographs feel so ubiquitous; everyone’s taking a photo and putting it online. Maybe that is a bit of nostalgia in me for these other moments in time – they seem very precious because they exist in a different context, outside of social media.
How does that older protest aesthetic in photography influence your practice?
Sharon Hayes talks about her work being somewhere between a performance and an action, and I really relate to that. I don’t think so much about the aesthetics of it, even though I love the ways the text and placards can be used to disrupt or send a message. It’s also playful and joyful, there’s a little wink and nod to something else which I try to emulate. The balance between trying to be sincere about something, and political, but also being playful, that’s important.
I think my work used to be very camp, I used to perform as a series of weird characters in my work, and I think that’s something that’s slowly been stripped away. I realised I didn’t need that character anymore, I can just, like, be myself. When I did The Mayor Project, it was supposed to be funny, but I also did it with the utmost sincerity. I never made fun of anyone, I was presenting myself as being here, as being serious about what I’m doing, but there was also something inherently funny about it because I was never going to win. People were always so surprised that I could speak coherently in public but that’s what artists do all the time, we talk about ourselves.
Let’s talk more about Sharon Hayes. When you look at her works, you come to be unsure of what you’re witnessing, whether it’s real or not.
Sharon influences me from a conceptual standpoint. She talks about being unwilling to concede the space of politics to politicians and reporters and her belief that artists have a role to play. That ethos resonates for me. I don’t want my work to just exist in the realm of the art world, I want to exist as an artist in the world of politics and institutions and in the street. I love that questioning of those boundaries of what art and activism are and how they sit in relation to one another in her work.
Like Hayes, I’ve also explored performative activist work before. I did a project where I ran for mayor a few years ago. The campaign went for six weeks. During that time, I never told anyone that it was an artwork. I just said, I’m here as an artist and as a genuine candidate, because I didn’t want people to suddenly think that it was a joke. I thought that if I’d said it was an artwork then everybody’s just going to think that I was taking the piss. The language you use can really change the meaning.
Sharon Hayes talks about her work as not a performance but an action. Similarly, that mayor campaign I ran was an action, but it’s also an artwork. Hayes has spoken about other public works she did where she was performing using some protest placards. She said she never told anyone she was an artist during those performances. She would always talk around being an artist instead.
I did a few performances for A Feminist Poster Project where I played with that boundary too. I made feminist posters which I had attached to backpacks and corkboards, and a group of us walked around the city with them on. It really provokes people to stop and ask questions. When people see you and they read the text, it’s sort of within the realm of their understanding. Once they have had a second take, they’re like, hang on a minute, this doesn’t quite fit with what we expect to see, and it’s challenging to explain it to them without saying it’s performance. Language in particular really shapes how people then perceive a work.
I think I’ll continue looking at this image, and my relationship with it will keep evolving over time as I continue sitting with it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Katie Sfetkidis".
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