Location, Relationships & Practice: The Con/servare Melbourne Forum 2019
In October 2019 the Grimwade Centre hosted a forum run by Con/servare, an international network for researchers and practitioners in the fields of conservation, material culture and attribution studies, co-founded in 2018 by Grimwade PhD candidates Ainslee Meredith, Julianne Bell and Eliza O’Donnell. In this blog post, Eliza O’Donnell introduces the Con/servare network, and reports on its 2019 forum.
The initial idea for the Con/servare network developed from discussions between Ainslee Meredith, Julianne Bell and myself around what it would mean for our research and practice to be collaborative on an international level. As three Melbourne-based researchers at the start of our PhDs, we were keen to engage with a wider network of researchers working in aligned fields with shared interests; however, we lacked a platform to create these relationships. Building on ideas of connection and collaboration, we applied for and were successfully awarded a Universitas 21 Graduate Collaborative Research Award (2017–2018). Aiming to connect doctoral students from Australia, the Asia Pacific, Europe and North America, the grant facilitated the development of a network for early career researchers and practitioners working with material culture in its various forms.
The Con/servare network launch was held as a forum, A Space for Collaborative Research, in June 2018 at the Cologne Institute for Conservation Sciences, TH Köln, Germany, in parallel with a Symposium organised by the European research network ‘New Approaches in the Conservation of Contemporary Art’ (NACCA). Fifteen participants from the NACCA research network, from universities in Amsterdam, Cologne, Warsaw, Maastricht, Rome and Glasgow, joined the Melbourne facilitators in a roundtable discussion, reflecting on collaboration in their research and practice through the key themes of Location, Relationships and Practice. As the launch of Con/servare sought to move beyond ‘connection’, the network aimed to reflect on a need for ‘collaboration’ as a framework to be critically analysed, tested and enacted in practice.
2019 Melbourne Forum
On 4 October 2019, the Con/servare network held its second forum, this time at the University of Melbourne. The forum brought together researchers and practitioners in cultural heritage, fine art and design, history, architecture, archaeology, conservation, and curatorial studies. While the launch in Cologne focused on bringing together conservation researchers who were disconnected by their physical locations, the Melbourne Forum inverted this model by expanding the disciplinary scope in a single location to foster increased collaborations. Building on the key themes of the 2018 launch, Ainslee, Julianne and Eliza facilitated panel sessions on Location, Relationships and Practice. The presenters included ten researchers and practitioners from the University of Melbourne, VCA, RMIT, Monash University, and Deakin University. In particular, we were aiming to further examine the concept of collaboration itself, reflecting on ways we can develop collaborative research across these closely related fields and on what types of models work best for enabling and sustaining collaborations.
This session included presentations by Delia Teschendorff (Architecture), Rachel Ciesla (Art Curatorship) and Ainslee Meredith (Conservation) on how location, space and place operate in their work and practice. The presenters share an awareness of how heritage sites, practices, materials and narratives are contested and always in the process of being made and re-made.
Delia Teschendorff’s presentation, ‘“Site Thinking”, A New Design Approach to Housing Subdivision Practice’, introduced us to the idea of speculative design through her PhD research on the histories and stories of lands used for housing subdivision practices in Victoria. This approach considers that an investigation of a site’s deeper histories, such as finding the existing stories of ‘Country’, its physical and experiential features, and who are the Traditional Owners, are fundamental to the design process. In this design research project, Delia’s methodology is applied in the context of subdivision and the speculative design of a new suburb in Melbourne.
Rachel Ciesla’s presentation, ‘Acts of Fixing; Acts of Healing’, reflected on how trauma is layered at historical sites through the example of her recent curatorial project, Healing Practices, at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre (Figure 2). Transposing the historical narratives of the exhibition site – a home, psychiatric facility and art centre imbued with colonial legacy – to the site of the body, Healing Practices acknowledged the non-linear nature of past trauma and related healing through the works of five artists and writers. Through an engagement with the history of specific locations – their physical surroundings, communities and memories – Rachel’s curatorial practice seeks to ask: how can we reconcile ourselves with these non-physical aspects of dwelling and usage? How can we engage with a traumatic past, with a view to overcoming it?
Ainslee Meredith’s presentation, ‘Deposits: Natural, Human & Artistic Ecologies in Archives’, used creative research methods to investigate the materiality of archival records relating to the history of the management of Victoria’s waterways. Through site-specific research undertaken at the Public Records Office Victoria, Ainslee considered the presence of human, material and technological elements in the systematic measurements kept on the water level, flow, temperature, evaporation and salinity of thousands of Victorian watercourses from the nineteenth century onwards. Contrasting the rich signification of water in the archival records with the archive’s own fear of water, Ainslee also interrogated the ethics of the oft-stated aim of ‘bringing records to life’ when they are not dead in the first place.
The second session, facilitated by Julianne Bell (Conservation), explored the vast theme of relationships, with presentations from Louisa Bufardeci (Fine Arts), Dr Julia Kuehns (Research Liaison Librarian), Michaela Pegum (Fine Arts) and Evan Tindal (Conservation). Covering a range of personal, conceptual, practical and professional relationships, presentations highlighted how such connections enhance and shape research, work and practice.
Louisa Bufardeci presented the practice of tacking as a collaborative string art performance, demonstrating her PhD project and theory of ‘tacktical aesthetics’ (Figure 3). Louisa’s research investigates an aesthetic language that removes divisions and the reinforcement of social privilege, and instead generates artworks by connecting the space between people. Grounded in theories of relationality that are present in Indigenous and feminist philosophies, Louisa’s ‘tacktical aesthetics’ proposes an infinite number of experiential variations that suggest alternate forms of being, knowing and doing, where we can see ourselves as part of each other.
Julia Kuehns introduced the O’Donnell Marginalia Project, which brought together multiple collaborators to facilitate digital access to this valuable collection, allowing for engagement otherwise only possible by physically visiting the collection. Conceived as a pilot study by Julia in 2016, the O’Donnell Marginalia Project showcases examples of marginalia, notes and annotations in the collection of Nicholas Michael O’Donnell (1862–1920), Melbourne’s foremost Gaelic scholar. Held at the St Mary’s Newman Academic Centre (SNAC), the O’Donnell Collection comprises around 400 books and pamphlets which contain annotations in O’Donnell’s own hand, offering a fascinating social commentary and insight into his reading practices.
Michaela Pegum’s presentation, ‘Subtle Bodies: Corporeal and Material Becoming in Threshold Landscapes’, combined her artistic expression of, and embodied relationships with, liminal environments such as dusk and the desert (Figure 1). Presented through evocative images and sculptural work, Michaela discussed more subtle aspects of relationships between the body and its environment, revealed through artistic expression. Reflecting on her explorative material practice where she works to create new hybrid materials and textures, including electroplated velvet sculptures, Michaela’s process involves fostering relationships with the natural world to explore how the sensing body meets them, and how this synergy may offer us new ways of being and perceiving.
Evan Tindal finished the session with his presentation reflecting on navigating the commercial and academic spheres of cultural heritage conservation as both a PhD researcher, and principal objects conservator at the Grimwade Centre. While the Grimwade Centre trains students at Masters level and produces a significant portion of the Centre’s research output, the commercial arm of the Grimwade Centre provides conservation treatment and more general collection management offerings to local organisations, collecting institutions and private individuals. With experience researching and working in both the academic and commercial spheres, Evan discussed the benefits of this academic/commercial relationship and how approaching it with an outlook towards mutual benefit is key to mutual success.
The final session on the theme of practice, facilitated by Eliza O’Donnell (Conservation), asked panel presenters, Ana Lara Heyns (Architecture), Lucreccia Quintanilla (Fine Arts) and Nur Shkembi (Curatorship), to reflect on their own research and creative practices.
Ana Lara Heyns’s presentation, ‘Visualising the Invisible: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Understand Cultural Heritage in the Underground’, identified a gap in existing practices in relation to understanding cultural aspects of the underground. As cities are expanding and stable infrastructure is needed to support the growing population and land use, Ana’s presentation explored the emergence of the underground as a potential space for urban development. Approaching this topic through the lens of an ethnographic researcher, Ana’s practice-based research aims to create a bridge between architecture and cultural anthropology to build a collaborative resource for recording intangible heritage through ethnography.
In her presentation, ‘Towards an Embodied Approach to Artistic Practices’, Lucreccia Quintanilla introduced a multi-layered collaborative artistic approach that draws on her experience as a multidisciplinary sound artist, DJ, writer and researcher. Presenting a number of her own artworks, including the hand-stitched echo-chamber Our voices together, bouncing off the walls (2019) where Lucreccia and her son translate Indigenous words from her native El Salvador, her work examines sound as a mode of knowledge transference through various impulses of space-time temporality. Drawing on theory from writers and movements who have influenced her practice, such as Octavia Butler and Jamaican sound system culture, Lucreccia’s presentation explored the space that is created by sound through an examination of disciplines outside of the academic sound canon.
Nur Shkembi concluded the session with her presentation ‘Practice Makes Perfect: How Curating Smashed My Research (and Made it Better)’. Her talk reflected on the space that exists between professional practice as an independent curator and PhD researcher, and the connections between these two fields of practice. Nur presented two case studies detailing her professional curatorial practice and creative collaborations with Eleven, a collective of Muslim Australian contemporary art practitioners. Discussing collectivity in practice and the challenges associated with the creation of a local archive of Islamic Art as a contemporary art form in the diaspora, Nur emphasises the importance of the work of the curator and conservator in all forms of material culture today, as essential for the future history of our diverse cultural landscape.
Melbourne Forum participants:
Julianne Bell, Ainslee Meredith, Eliza O’Donnell, Melathi Saldin, Delia Teschendorff, Rachel Ciesla, Louisa Bufardeci, Julia Kuehns, Michaela Pegum, Evan Tindal, Ana Lara Heyns, Lucreccia Quintanilla, Bronwyn Cosgrove and Nur Shkembi.
Con/servare would like to acknowledge the support of the forum volunteers, Adis Fitriana, Yuhong Zhang, Jesse Dyer and Jackjohn Morrison, as well as support from Universitas 21, the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies (Engagement Committee), The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, and Mitchelton Wines – Cellar Door.
For more about Con/servare and the Melbourne Forum, contact the organisers, Ainslee Meredith, Eliza O’Donnell or Julianne Bell.
Feature image: Michaela Pegum with her artwork Windsilk II, Lake Frome, 2017 (detail). Photographer: Dave Meagher