The Practice of Doing
excerpt of 8′:46” (from 47′:15”) – 2013
Photo: Andrew Curtis
The Practice of Doing is installed as a circle of chairs, each with a set of headphones playing the same audio track. This track is a collection of twenty-two two-minute stories told by all sorts of people in different countries (and with different accents, ages, genders and types of knowledge) about relationships between women, or people referred to using the pronoun “she”. In each of these relationships these people have referred to one another publicly in their work in some way and as a result they have achieved something extraordinary or unusual. To give a few examples of these stories, someone tells how Marina Abramović and Lady Gaga have supported each other in publicity interviews, which has expanded the fan base of both; another person describes how journalist Marie Malone’s campaign in women’s magazines to fund scientist Marie Curie’s research facilitated some of her important work; someone else tells how Patsy Cline mentored Loretta Lynn who then made a special memorial for her when she died; and another voice recounts the campaign led by development activist Graça Machel to elect Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, to be the chair of the World Bank.
Originally commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for NEW13.
Maeve Connolly, ‘Alex Martinis Roe: A Speculative Gathering’ Published in NEW13, edited by Charlotte Day, Melbourne: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2013: 16.
The chairs are arranged in a circle on a carpet, allowing those seated to face one another as they listen, through headphones, to the succession of lone voices temporarily gathered together in Alex Martinis Roe’s The Practice of Doing. These unidentified voices share a warm, even passionate, tone, but they seem to emanate from disparate acoustic environments. Unconcerned with their own surroundings, the speakers focus on interactions between others, often viewed or encountered from a distance. Each reflects on the specific form of a relationship between two or more women, with at least partial expression in public. It becomes possible, through the succession of accounts, to draw parallels between the evolving relationships within and across different fields at different moments, involving scientists, artists, curators, politicians, activists, pop stars, authors, filmmakers, journalists and editors. All display mutual support, enacted through collaborations, meetings or more fleeting communication, in settings such as recording studios, film sets, social-media platforms, exhibitions, laboratories and universities.
Some of these relationships, such as the complex bond between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, have attracted the attention of biographers and literary theorists. But these voices speak of a much broader range of practices that, if not overlooked entirely, are rarely considered together. They describe, for example, the fundraising and promotional activities of journalist Marie Maloney, which enabled Marie Curie to continue her costly research; the shared writing practice developed by three Portuguese feminists in the face of severe censorship; Lady Gaga’s effusive expressions of admiration for the performances of Marina Abramović; and the rapport and respect established and demonstrated in meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton.
Other voices are also heard in The Practice of Doing, encountered on the soundtrack to a video projection of excerpts being read in Italian from a book written by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective in 1987, synchronised to a scrolling English translation. Copies of the Italian and English editions of the book are displayed nearby in a sculptural vitrine that loosely echoes aspects of the architecture of the Milan bookstore. If the vitrine emphasises the material outcome of a shared practice of writing, then other aspects of the installation highlight the activity and agency of reading. Even though her voice is not among those heard in the video, Alex Martinis Roe’s friendships with the members of the collective — established through reading their writings — is integral to the structure and form of The Practice of Doing.
The excerpts presented in the video relate primarily to the concept of affidamento, or
‘entrustment’, a name the collective has given to a relationship that exists between women for themselves. Several potential exemplars from myth and history are proposed, including Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle de l’Espinasse, both of whom were initially active in the salon culture of 18th-century France. The physical and social space of the salon was an important site of power — and pleasure — for women at the time because ‘even men’s politics were based on personal relationships’. Yet, with the emergence of political parties, the forms of female thought that had flourished in the salon began to lose their authority.
By drawing together accounts of relationships between women, Martinis Roe contributes to the ‘ancient search’ for symbolic reference points invoked by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. Yet she does not simply seek to find new examples of entrustment; instead, through its particular form as a space of gathering, her installation engages directly with conflicting models of political thought, brought to light by the rise and fall of the salon. Those seated in the circle of chairs are physically present to each other, closer to theatre-goers than to a spatially dispersed audience of radio listeners. But the bodies of those who speak are neither visible nor present to these listeners and, seeing as they do not reveal their identities or follow the conventions of reportage, the speakers do not claim an authority based on name, reputation or journalistic convention.
As a consequence, The Practice of Doing differs from both the personal sphere favoured by Madame du Deffand and the ostensibly public assembly espoused by Enlightenment rationalists.
Through the arrangement of seats in a public gallery, the installation invokes (however obliquely) spaces of public assembly that are founded on ideals of transparency and rationality. Yet those taking up the position of listener in this gathering of voices are drawn into a succession of other acoustic environments, in which they hear the self-consciously speculative analysis of relationships that do not include the speaker. Instead of being presented with solidly factual assertions, grounded in rational observation, listeners are invited to share in an ongoing, open-ended search for an elusive and yet vital form of political thought.