WHEN I AM NOT THERE, Shelley Lasica
Anador Walsh

Though technically a survey of her work to date, Shelley Lasica’s WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022) at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Naarm radically subverted the established conventions for exhibiting a choreographic oeuvre in the gallery. A performance–exhibition, there was not a moment during WHEN I AM NOT THERE when dancing was not happening. There was no documentation, instead the works that occupied the space were inseparable from the action taking place. The audience was given the autonomy to roam about and experience the exhibition as they pleased. WHEN I AM NOT THERE proposed an exciting, alternative model of curating and exhibiting performance. A model I hope is further adopted in future.

The following conversation between Shelley Lasica and I took place on Friday 19 August 2022 and informed my review of WHEN I AM NOT THERE for The Saturday Paper.

Shelley Lasica, WHEN I AM NOT THERE, 2022, performance documentation, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne, 16–27 August 2022. Photo: Jacqui Shelton. Courtesy of the Artist.

AW: When I sit down with Lasica to discuss WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022) the first thing she tells me is that she doesn't like to think of this exhibition as a survey.

SL: The term survey has such a lot of connotations institutionally. WHEN I AM NOT THERE certainly refers to and involves work from the last 40 years, but what I’m more interested in is how museological, archival and documentary practices might function in a generative way in relation to choreography.

It’s about using choreographic methods to think about time and people’s experience of it. The duration of the performance-exhibition is 10 days and people come in and out. Some people have stayed and come back again and others have come in for shorter periods. There are lots of different ways to interact with it.

In WHEN I AM NOT THERE, the survey functions through this choreographic material and the other things that are in the gallery.

AW: I have tried not to read too much prior to experiencing the exhibition. I’ve seen the promotional text and I’ve had a conversation with Hannah (Mathews), but nothing else. I have been thinking though, about the framing of this exhibition as a performance-exhibition and it reminded me of Claire Bishop’s writing on the dance exhibition, specifically her thoughts on the prolongation of dance to fit gallery hours. Does this line of inquiry play any role?

SL: There’s so much that’s been written about how this might function, especially institutionally. There’s the classic approach, you know, performance that becomes a public program, rather than actually being curated. But what I was really interested in was the ritual aspect, the relationship between the audience and the appointment.

I have been reading What is the New Ritual Space for the 21st Century, by Dorothea von Hantelman in which she speaks about collective gatherings either being as an appointment or as individualised gatherings in relation to temporality and modes of engagement.

I’m interested in this modality of the appointment and the types of ways people meet together and navigate different logics - the logic of the exhibition and the logic of a choreographic practice that exists within many different contexts. This has been an ongoing interest of mine.

In a theatre context for example, people come to a place at an identified time, for a specific amount of time. They join together and meet for an appointment.

Then there's the ways of being together in a space, the choices you make about how long you spend and how you function in this space, with the performers, yourself, the objects in the room and other attendees.

In this exhibition I’ve set up a series of possibilities that happen in one moment, but also happen in relation to many other moments. I’m thinking about how attendees might relate to the choreography and the objects in the space and what they might experience when they come. Whether people have a knowledge of my work or not, there are lots of access points.

Shelley Lasica, WHEN I AM NOT THERE, 2022, performance documentation, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne, 16–27 August 2022. Photo: Jacqui Shelton. Courtesy of the Artist.

AW: From here, Lasica and I discuss how WHEN I AM NOT THERE was made, both in and out of lockdown, in different contexts and using different methodologies. She tells me this exhibition came to be largely through ongoing conversations with Zoe Theodore (Lasica’s creative producer) and Hannah Mathews (formerly MUMA’s senior curator and now the CEO of Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA)) and interdisciplinary consultants Colby Vexler and Lisa Radford. The new choreographic material for WHEN I AM NOT THERE, was created in collaboration with dancers LJ Connolly-Hiatt, Luke Fryer, Timothy Harvey, Rebecca Jensen, Megan Payne, Oliver Savariego and Lana Šprajcer and the accompanying sound was created with long-term collaborator François Tétaz.

SL: We’ve worked together on and off (Franc and I) for nearly 30 years. He first made the music for a work of mine in 1996. Previously he’s made sound for performances that were presented in a more familiar, theatrical mode. For WHEN I AM NOT THERE we’ve pushed the dynamics of those particular considerations, while being clear that it is the choreography that is the dominant structure through which all other things in this exhibition function.

I spent a lot of time when I first started making solo work not using music because I felt that the linking of music and dance created an expectation for people that was embedded in that relationship. I wanted to pull away from this.

I started thinking about relationships with other types of media. Not as a way of making them meld together, or support each other, but to tease out the differences. I started going back into music, thinking about how you could shift those relationships, so that choreography wouldn’t be seen just in relation to music.

AW: From the soundscape, our conversation turns to the floor decal that curls its way through the galleries and references the 2010 circulation diagram for MUMA drawn by Kerstin Thompson Architects, then to the roomsheet.

This roomsheet identifies the objects that populate the space like: sports flooring that alludes to the scenography from Lasica’s Here BEHAVIOUR Part 4 (1995); Magis’s Trioli children’s chairs; Tony Clark’s Scenery (1990), produced for Lasica’s BELIEVE (1990-91) and a large nautical net from which select costumes from various Lasica works from the past 40 years, including Kathy Temin’s untitled (costume), for CHARACTER X (1996), hang.

Among these objects, cutout ellipses demarcate in the roomsheet areas where one might witness Lascia and her collaborators dancing in the gallery. Lasica explains these ellipses indicate the presence of the choreography in relation to the performers as well as the choreography of the objects in the space. This makes me curious to know if there is a choreographic score at work here.

SL: It depends what one means by a score. I resist using this word because I feel like it’s traditionally connected to music composition and a notation for dance that’s often prescriptive, archival or dance historical. In certain milieus, it also seems to flag a particular type of dance practice and because language is so contextual, I would choose to not use this term at the moment.

But if you think of it as an organising principle, then yes, there’s a really complex score. It has all sorts of different triggers and there’s a huge amount of agency for the dancers. In creating this work, we’ve worked in a lot of different modes, in relationship to existing material, new material and choreographic structures.

Shelley Lasica, WHEN I AM NOT THERE, 2022, performance documentation, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne, 16–27 August 2022. Photo: Jacqui Shelton. Courtesy of the Artist.

AW: Do the actions of the attendees trigger anything in the work?

SL: The audience doesn’t necessarily trigger shifts. But we perform in a mode that is very attentive to the audience. They have the autonomy to move about and engage with the work as they choose to.

AW: That reminds me of that Pip Wallis quote from The Design Plot (2021) “She doesn’t mind if you look or not, but she is paying razor-sharp attention”.1

SL: That sort of inquiry started in my early work. The BEHAVIOUR works came out of a frustration and curiosity I had, encountering other people’s work and noticing that those things were either not thought about or were utilised in a way that I felt was disrespectful or manipulative of the audience.

I became interested in how one engages. Where are the edges of one’s engagement and attention? I wanted to explore that without dictating that you must look at me. WHEN I AM NOT THERE continues that inquiry. When there's nobody there, we’re still dancing. It doesn't need viewing to exist. And even when you are there, you can never be sure you are taking hold of what everything is about. When you attend, you don't see the whole thing, you only see some of it.

AW: Is the choreography all new? How does it engage with your archive?

SL: It is new work being generated through choreographic processes and it engages with the archive in the same way I’ve always referenced my work. These references are less particular to specific choreographic phrases and more to ways of working. They're generative.

Shelley Lasica, WHEN I AM NOT THERE, 2022, performance documentation, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne, 16–27 August 2022. Photo: Jacqui Shelton. Courtesy of the Artist.

AW: So for example, encountering Megan (Payne) just before in the gallery, I was immediately aware that their costuming was referencing If I Don’t Understand You (2019) in some way. But am I right in understanding that this choice is less about the work and more about the affiliate ways of working?

SL: Yes. It’s not about replication. It’s about presenting these ways of working and seeing how this is dealt with and understood by the dancers. What I offered is very particular material, that is new for this work and also recalls earlier work.

AW: This generative way of working, coupled with the structure of the exhibition - during gallery hours, Lasica and/or her collaborators are always dancing - challenges the traditional way that performance is exhibited in the gallery. It is convention to have an object, or some kind of visual documentation of the work present when the performers are not. When I ask Lasica about this bucking of convention, she tells me:

SL: I was very clear that I didn’t want any sort of documents of work. What’s present is work that exists in itself, or that references particular work very strongly. There is no documentation.

AW: It’s so exciting to see an exhibition like this. I remember as recently as 2019, pitching an exhibition without anything occupying the gallery between performances and being told that, that simply couldn’t be done. So it’s really wonderful to see a show that both resists the notion of the survey and challenges how we show performance work.

SL: That’s the other thing about the title. The work and the exhibition don’t exist separately, they only exist together. It’s constructed in a particular way for this space and it will be constructed differently next year, when it’s presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (in 2023).

Shelley Lasica, WHEN I AM NOT THERE, 2022, performance documentation, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne, 16–27 August 2022. Photo: Jacqui Shelton. Courtesy of the Artist.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE ran from 16 – 27 August 2022 at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Naarm (Melbourne).

WHEN I AM NOT THERE was realised as part of Precarious Movements: Choreography and the Museum (2021-2024), a research project hosted by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and involving partner organisations the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney; the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne; Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne; Tate, UK and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), Perth. The aim of this artist- and practice-centred research project is to discover how best to commission, curate, conserve, present and interpret choreography in a gallery context and to improve critical understandings of dance and the institution.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE was co-commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and will be presented there 22 May – 4 June 2023.

  1. Pip Wallis, “It’s capricious, capricious everyday,” in The Design Plot, (Melbourne: Perimeter Editions, 2021), p. 37.

Anador Walsh is a curator and writer and the director of Performance Review. In 2020 Anador took part in the Gertrude Contemporary Emerging Writers Program and was the 2019 recipient of the BLINDSIDE Emerging Curator Mentorship. Recent writing includes: Beyond human for The Saturday Paper, Performing Protest for PICA and Making Content from the Wreck for Contact High at Gertrude Glasshouse. Until 2018, Anador was the Marketing and Development Manager of Gertrude.

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