Since the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic in 2020, art institutions have widely adapted to deliver activities online, often turning into entirely virtual structures. The Marrgu Residency Program in the community of Peppimenarti, NT, is a fascinating case in point. Marrgu was established in 2018 by Regina Pilawuk Wilson—Ngan’gikurungurr woman, senior artist and Cultural Director of Durrmu Arts—to encourage intercultural exchange, knowledge sharing and relationship building between Peppimenarti and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, urban and regional art centres, local and international artists and, not least, Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural practices. According to Regina, the word Marrgu means 'knowledge sharing' as well as 'new start' in Peppimenarti’s Ngan’gi language.1
The first digital iteration of the program, which Durrmu Arts and Agency invited me to curate, consisted of an exchange between Regina, Yindjibarndi artist Katie West and Malaysia-born, Aotearoa-raised and Australia-based artist Fayen d’Evie.2 Katie and Fayen have an ongoing artistic collaboration.3 While they had met Regina prior to the start of the project, the three of them had never worked together before. Therefore, when conceptualising the residency, the main challenge we were presented with was: how can we develop an exchange that is not merely one-dimensional, and that creates an actual sense of connection, while unfolding almost exclusively online? An interest in tactility and history, and the use of materials that derive from their surroundings—be they stories, objects, sounds, natural fibres and colours—is what the three artists have in common. Their unique relationship with Country and interpretation of locality and place were crucial in positioning their contribution within the project. Each of them was situated in a specific Aboriginal Country and state
of Australia: Regina in Ngan’gikurungurr Country, Northern Territory; Katie in Noongar Ballardong Boodja, Western Australia; and Fayen in Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Victoria. Thus the residency followed the principles of mutuality and interchange in a virtual setup, but it equally emphasised the physical space they inhabited through the exchange of gifts.
The practice of gift exchange has a long genealogy, examined in fields such as history, philosophy and anthropology as an alternative economy to capitalism and an instrument for hospitality to occur.4 The gift, symbol of material and immaterial, spiritual and symbolic values, is at the basis of my understanding and theorisation of the art residency. The exchange of gifts (art is only one of them, then there is time, knowledge, access) initiates relationships of reciprocity, promoting a practice of radical self-assessment between those who host and those who are invited to be in residence, the guests. With this in mind, the three artists were asked to share images of their daily art practice, videos and field/voice recordings of their walks in a virtual diary, whilst also sending materials from their bush studios, postcards and small gifts to one another through the postal service. Walks and postal deliveries have become striking elements of lockdown and life in isolation. The residency experimented from out of these facts, taking inspiration from Mail Art—a precursor of internet art—to address alternative forms of connection during the pandemic, challenging the expansion and shrinking of time and space.5
The process of running the residency digitally was not effortless. There was a lot of coordination involved (since each artist resided in a different time zone), tasks that needed to be set in advance and patience required from all fronts. Moreover, and contrary to the usual understanding of online connection as fast-paced and hyper accelerated, this project embraced slowness. Meetings occurred with a loose, rhythmic cadence and often involved the participation of plus ones, be they assistants on site or family members, especially in Peppimenarti, where access to the internet is available only at the Art Centre.
A priority at the commencement of the residency was to hold studio visits to set the grounds for the exchange. These talks consisted of presentations with images: PowerPoint, sound and videos delivered via Zoom about updates in the artists’ work and the history and stories of their locations. Through this approach, Fayen and Katie learnt about Regina’s community and their harvesting, weaving and painting techniques in a series of pre-recorded videos that Regina produced especially for them, while working IRL with merrepen fibres Regina had mailed them. Connecting through touch—using and manipulating materials selected and offered by the participants for their exchange, while attending their meetings online—held a special significance at a time when engaging with others in tangible ways was challenged, if not almost completely forbidden. In response to Regina’s studio sharing, Katie showed the group digital outcomes of archival research and fieldwork she had been doing in Western Australia. Fayen then presented performative experiments made during lockdown of herself dancing on Country, alongside field recordings of sounds from the bush and further images of in-progress work. Some of the materials physically exchanged between the three artists have comprised two postcards painted by Regina for Katie and Fayen, strings of merrepen (sand palm) and berries harvested in Peppimenarti by Regina. Fayen responded with a series of embossed papers—cutouts from one of her publishing projects that Regina, in turn reacted to, by painting over them.
A final, slow outcome was the realisation of a collaborative sound work produced by Agency in partnership with the podcast service Storytowns and the moving image and recording studio Composite, which includes recordings by the three artists—music and voices from Peppimenarti curated by Regina, sound from the river and bird singing contributed by Katie and a walk and conversation with Zeno, the artist’s son, by Fayen. You are invited to listen to the result, which is attached to this publication and join the artists in their journey through Country with sound.6
The 2020 Marrgu Digital Residency is a project of Durrmu Arts, produced by Agency and supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.