Dr Anna Parlane
Sessional lecturer and research assistant
Art History, School of Culture and Communication
University of Melbourne
10 December, 2018
To whom it may concern,
I am writing in support of Jessie Bullivant’s Inside Job, 2015, in which I was involved as a gallery attendant.
I have known Jessie since 2013, when we were both employed as gallery attendants and front of house coordinators at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). We worked closely together in this capacity for four years, during which time I also became familiar with Jessie’s art practice.
I’ve always enjoyed the efficiency of their work. As gestures, Jessie’s works are often very simple, but also very direct. They pinpoint an internal conflict or faultline within the structure they’re examining.
Inside Job was developed for NEW15, an exhibition of new works commissioned by ACCA and curated by the gallery’s in-house graphic designer, artist Matt Hinkley. Jessie’s work consisted of a gesture – a shrug – performed by ACCA’s team of gallery attendants during our interactions with visitors to the exhibition. This performative component of the work was accompanied by a series of stock photographs depicting people shrugging, which had been purchased by the artist. These images were used in posters designed by Hinkley in his dual capacity as curator and in-house designer, and exhibited around Melbourne as advertising for the exhibition.
As a participant in Inside Job, I was impressed by the ethical and professional manner in which Jessie approached the project, and particularly by how thoroughly they briefed members of ACCA’s front of house team.
They did a powerpoint presentation for us, which they worked really hard on. They were nervous about how we would react. They understood that the project’s success depended completely on our participation.
Jessie split their artists’ fee among the work’s performers, ensuring we were compensated for the time we spent learning about the work, and also for the task they were asking us to perform in addition to our regular duties as gallery attendants.
They wrote up a contract for the delivery of services for each of us, formalised it all. The contract was one of the few parts of the work that had a lasting physical presence. There were also the advertising posters, and the exhibition wall label, which listed all of our names where you would normally have “materials.”
Jessie’s attraction to what Benjamin Buchloh called “the aesthetics of administration” and their interest in identifying (and subverting) the conventions of art institutions positions their practice unambiguously, I think, in the tradition of Institutional Critique.
They also arranged a workshop with a choreographer and movement specialist, who provided us with basic movement training and instruction in how to use our body language expressively in our performance of the work.
Jessie introduced a shrug into the network of structures, policies, bodies, actions and interactions that is ACCA in order to demonstrate how information flows through the institution. Information – or perhaps certainty? As gallery attendants, one of our roles was to talk about the artworks on display with visitors to the gallery, answer questions, offer interpretation or insight. For many exhibition visitors we were the embodiment of ACCA’s institutional voice, invested with the authority of the gallery’s public standing. Shrugging during every interaction we had with a gallery visitor introduced a note of uncertainty into everything we said and, by extension, into the gallery’s voice. The shrug was like a little anarchic glitch, a crack in both ours and ACCA’s authority. It made us all into double agents, working both for and against our employer, systematically undermining our own credibility.
The shorter and more prosaic the interaction, the harder it was to get a shrug in. When someone asked me what time the gallery was closing – “Five pm (… I guess?”) – or where the bathroom was – “Just to your left (… but you might want to reconsider?”) – the shrug must have made my answer unsettlingly ambiguous.
It seems to me that Inside Job was about unmasking the institution’s role as a “tool of ideological control and cultural legitimation,” to borrow Buchloh’s words again, but it was also at least as much about Jessie’s own relationship with ACCA, and with all of us.
As a delegated performance, Inside Job relied heavily on the participation and input of its performers and the artist’s ability to clearly and effectively communicate their vision to a range of participants. The work provides an excellent example of Jessie’s ability to work successfully with others, and gain co-operation from stakeholders.
If I’m going to be completely honest, it could fairly easily have gone the other way. There was a lot riding on Jessie’s ability to be persuasive. If the gallery attendants weren’t all on board, their already ephemeral work would simply evaporate out of existence. A couple of people were reluctant to do it, they didn’t appreciate being co-opted into their colleague’s work.
Perhaps some of the gallery attendants felt the work was exploitative – and of course it was, in a way, but no more than Matt’s multiple role as ACCA’s designer-slash-exhibition curator-slash-artist exploited his particular skill set, his networks and his relationship to the institution. Jessie was leveraging their professional and personal relationships with us into a project that would raise their profile as an artist. The fact that we all already knew each other was certainly an advantage to them in some ways, but it may have been a disadvantage in others.
Curated survey shows are always portraits of networks: the kinds of crossover personal/professional networks that underpin the way we do business with one another and, I imagine, the way people did business with each other long before “networking” was recognised as an essential professional skill. Art galleries like ACCA survive on the value of networking. Why else would so many ambitious young art students volunteer their time to support the gallery’s daily administration? Why else would wealthy philanthropists donate their money? We build our identities through these associations.
In any kind of public-facing job, your body is being co-opted. Your body and your personality, your personal style. You are the face of the organisation. Exploitation is inherent. There is necessarily a kind of splitting that happens, in this situation, where your personal identity, your private thoughts, come apart from your public face, your identity as an employee and representative of the institution. It’s funny, though, how the relationship between your public and private selves is elastic. If you’re good at your job, you put a lot of yourself into it. You remake yourself to fit the institution, and of course in this process you can’t help but remake the institution a bit too.
It has been my observation that Jessie is consistently conscientious, thoughtful and meticulous in their attention to detail, both in their art practice and their professional work. Inside Job is exemplary of the conceptual clarity of their practice, and their deft handling of sophisticated ideas.
Jessie said once that they like stock images because they don’t know what they are going to be. An image is created that doesn’t yet have a buyer or a purpose. It could be used for anything. It could be used to advertise cat food, a mental health service, vacuum cleaners – anything. I find the stock images they used in Inside Job, showing beautiful, yet carefully relatable models shrugging theatrically, really funny. They are mystified, perfectly embodying the placeholder quality of the stock image, standing in for a meaning that has yet to be decided. Inside Job infiltrated and re-routed ACCA’s exhibition advertising budget, and inserted these uncertain images into a communicative space that is normally used for advertising’s more direct messaging. Installed in paid advertising space in Melbourne’s train stations and bus shelters, our model avatars did a similar job to what we were doing inside the gallery, fracturing the tone of certainty with which the institutional message is delivered.
As Jessie’s title suggests, Inside Job was fully implicated in the mutually exploitative network of relations encapsulated by the term “institution.” They exploited their existing relationships with ACCA, with Matt, with us, in order to introduce their work – a little glitch, a fleeting moment of uncertainty – into ACCA’s existing channels of communication. Institutional critique is often understood according to a dated model of artistic radicalism as fundamentally combative, speaking truth to power, antagonising its own institutional frame. Inside Job, however, was deeply complicit. The charge of antagonism that the work delivered – its ephemerality, its subversiveness – was absolutely in line with ACCA’s self-image and institutional priorities, the gallery’s desire to be seen as provocative.
I think that what Jessie really pointed out, from their position inside the institution, is how ACCA’s institutional voice – our collective voice – is already split, fractured by the dynamic, elastic relationship between each of our multiple selves, slippery undercurrents of shifting allegiances, power dynamics, doubts, uncertainties, ulterior motives. The work inserted a visible question mark into a space that was already there.
I am delighted to endorse Inside Job, which I believe to be a strong example of Jessie’s work, and clear evidence of their ambition and talent as an artist.