At the media preview for the 21st Biennale of Sydney it’s hard to decide exactly what’s going on in Workshop, 2010–ongoing, by Ciara Phillips. Occupying an entire ground floor gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the soaring walls are sparely painted with bold geometric designs. Posters covered with words like RESISTANCE and DEMON-STRATE, and a few framed prints hang on the walls. Assorted grey-and-white banners hang from the ceiling, while a printing press and several work tables are distributed around a central purpose-built platform. Despite all this, the large room feels quite empty, although it’s apparent that the space is now doubling as a functional place of work. Contemplating the title, I realise that the date reveals an important clue: Workshop is not a static work of art.
Born in Canada, Phillips has lived in the Scottish city of Glasgow for some time. Since its first modest outing in Hamburg, her ongoing project Workshop has made eight further appearances and the MCA installation is the latest incarnation of this experimental series. A 2014 iteration, exhibited at The Showroom in London, was one of six nominees for Britain’s best known contemporary art prize, the Turner Prize. It’s also just one of many works in Phillips’s oeuvre that collapse the distinction between craft and art; and between art and labour. During the life of the Biennale, this unique version of Workshop will evolve as the artist takes time to connect with a range of collaborators.
When I return to the space the artist has been in residence at the MCA for almost a month.
She is working in the gallery and during our unplanned conversation, the artist comes across as a warm and accessible person with an intriguing fusion of accents. The room is a-buzz with activity and a large group of young school children crowd around Phillips, who stands next to a wall-painted blackboard covered in blocks of text. The kids appear focused and entertained as Phillips points out various things on the blackboard and invites them to speak.
Written in chalk at the top of the board are dozens of names from the Sydney-based community groups who have collaborated with the artist on Workshop since the BoS launch. During the past month, she’s welcomed a diverse range of people: printmakers from Big Fag Press, members of Jessie Street National Women’s Library, a class from Liverpool Girls High School, and a group of Afghani women from STARTTS (the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) who’ve worked alongside the artist in the printmaking process. Using the MCA space to gather, converse and develop new ideas, group members collaborate with Phillips on each new work. Free to wander around the space, the preparation and making process is also visible to members of the public. According to Phillips, it’s essential that all the work made for Workshop is a product of mutual exchange. While the contribution of ideas and debates that inspire the work are valuable aspects of the artist’s methodology, so too is the social aspect of shared making and joint authorship of works.
The presence of this collective activity can be seen and sensed in the room. On the work tables elements of the process are evident: layers of butcher paper are covered in marker-penned words and phrases, coloured slogans adorn a pile of grey T-shirts, and several cut-out stencils with phrases like, love is a big word, WOMEN WORDS WOMEN WORKS, and CONNECTED, printed in black, pink and burgundy, lie at various angles. Additional posters hang on the wall and I recognise the phrase WISHING POLITICIANS KNEW ABOUT LOVE from a poster reproduced in a Sydney newspaper on the previous weekend. A short time later, the artist has left for an appointment, the school kids have been reassembled outside and all remaining visitors have drifted away. Even with the room empty of people, in that moment, the palpable anticipation, excitement and energy of recent occupants still lingers in the air.