Spiral Collectives
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Spiral Collectives

Hot Air

by Betty Davis

L to R Makyla Curtis, Susannah Whaley, Ruby Porter, Hannah Lees, Toyah Webb, and Betty Davis

At last week’s Lounge (#60) in the Old Government House at the University of Auckland, six of us performed a cut from my radio play, Hot Air. I had written the radio play last year as part of Michele Leggott’s English Honours paper Opening the Archive. It was through Michele that I learnt that archives are very interesting places. The brief she gave us was to creatively engage with an archive. I had been listening to the Women’s Art Archive Interview Project, and produced in response a 17 minute long MP3 recording. Hot Air is both radio play for broadcasting and poetic performance. It is all about voices in conversation. It has characters played by a cast, women artists, and a setting, 1984.

The Women’s Art Archive Interview Project is a series of recorded interviews with women artists that were carried out in 1984. The project was an initiative to record women talking about their work, their life and work, and their relationship, if any, with the feminist movement. It was about making women visible in New Zealand’s art history and ensuring documentation for the future. Fifty-nine interviews are included in the archive, which exists as 80 cassette tapes sitting in a cardboard storage box in the Auckland Art Gallery’s E H McCormick Research Library. This set is a copy; the original tapes were archived in the National Art Gallery in Wellington, now Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of NZ. Due to copyright issues the interviews can only be listened to on-site, so I would go in and pick a tape, put headphones on and listen to the voices.

I was interested in what I was hearing, and I wanted to find a way to get some of the essence of those conversations out. The tapes can’t be copied or recorded or reproduced without permission. The medium of this particular archive is sound, and that, for me, is what made it compelling. Voices have a transportative quality about them, they can come forward into your here and now in a way that objects can’t. So I wanted to play with sound and project some of these voices out, in a way that respected copyright and the women’s privacy. After accumulated hours of listening I had in front of me transcribed, deconstructed bits from the twelve interviews.

At the same time I was reading German filmmaker, visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s ‘Politics of the Archive.’ Steyerl talks about contents and control in archives. She says an archive’s power is sustained by repetition, by a control over the ‘faithful’ reproduction of their contents. This means the copying of material onto updated forms of technology (floppy disk or tape to CD, to file, to a back-up, to a cloud, to the next, etc.). Here she is talking about the archive as Jacques Derrida’s Arkheion or the house of the powerful. ‘Ripping’ is different to ‘copying,’ and Steyerl explains the idea of tearing, or stealing inherent in the word ‘rip’ (as in ‘to rip off’), but also how this is ‘a technical term used for copying files into another file format, also often removing copy inhibition in the process.’ An unfaithful copying had happened unwittingly through my own listening, as I couldn’t always catch every word and my notes were patchy, fragmented. They were already ‘ripped.’

The script of my play is inspired by pieces that I heard from the tapes. They are not attached to any one woman but, I hope, speak collectively in conversation. In this way, the new whole responds to but is different from the original, it is a fake, but it is faithful in that it is a story told by women. I was also influenced by Michele’s poem ‘Emily and Her Sisters’ and the idea of montage, where different voices combined operate together as one and multiple at the same time. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project is here too; the idea that fragments (Benjamin’s volume is a huge collection of notes and reflections pivoting around the Parisienne arcades, with quotations and pieces pulled in) can give glimpses into the whole of the surrounding time. So 2018 might communicate with 1984…

The structure of a play was inspired by my dad, the late NZ poet Leigh Davis’s work Nameless, in which the play becomes a vehicle for poetry. A play is cohesive, has a stage, a cast, makes a performance, is a representation, a play might be playful. Act I scene 1 (‘Talk’) was influenced by a scene in Nameless called ‘Crash.’ I sought to imitate the tumbling sense of movement around the Union Square subway station; the difference and volume of people coming in and out of the underground that is traced in that scene. So my cast move. These are the voices ‘coming out’ of the archive thirty-three years later, and so they are loud, multiple (a rabble), and demand attention.

I wanted to effect the same ‘dropping in’ that I had experienced in my research: inserting the audience into the ‘feminist’ art world of 1984 New Zealand. With these women we look further in — into the Women’s Gallery at home in Wellington — and out — to what women are doing in art overseas. The art world that I encountered in these tapes is young and has fuzzy borders. In the tapes women move both towards and away from the politics of feminism. Fragments heard might resonate differently for each listener.

So then I had a script. Sound needed to be met by sound, and Makyla Curtis said have you heard Under Milk Wood, a play for voices? I asked my friends if I could record them reading the script, directing them to different lines, and crash-coursed (once again thanks to Makyla) my way through sound editing. ‘Hot Air’ is an amateur production, so it’s rough, but then the sound quality from the tapes wasn’t slick either (sometimes buses passing outside a window eclipsed the women talking).

Dust accumulates in an archive, and breath disperses dust. My friends used their breath to breathe into these new-old voices, dispelling thirty-three years of accumulated dust, and releasing sound again with hot air. In our performance at Lounge, six young women standing, there was a subtle ripple in context and a momentary glitch in time. My favourite moment was when we spoke together the line ‘Women’s creativity is taken care of by having children,’ the audience laughed, and Ruby jumped on with her line that followed, ‘My first sculptural experience was with plasticine. I made a snowman and a worm.’

MP3 voice credits: Hannah Lees, Ruby Porter, Maddy Powers, Sarah Jane, Florence Crick-Frierson, Lilly Peacocke, Makyla Curtis.

Makyla Curtis, Susannah Whaley, Ruby Porter, Hannah Lees, Toyah Webb, Betty Davis; & Michele Leggott in the chair behind them

The LOUNGE readings are a continuing project of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc), Auckland University Press and the University of Auckland’s School of Humanities in association with the Staff Common Room Club at Old Government House.

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@devt

@devt

Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.