Requiem for a black summer

13 January 2021
Artist Julie Vulcan reflects on loss, memory and the artist-as-conduit in conversation with SEI editor Liberty Lawson, ahead of this weekend’s opening of multimedia exhibition and performance series Requiem at Sydney Festival.

In this two part series, artists Julie Vulcan and Michelle St Anne respond to the same set of questions. Both are contributing immersive, experiential performance works as part of the Requiem exhibition at Sydney Festival at Sydney Festival, interrogating the wake of the black summer bushfires.

While their practices and methodologies diverge, Michelle and Julie’s pieces reflect deeply personal experiences, both centred in the home. They challenge the notion of home as mere refuge, instead curating works that confront the kinds of threats that walls cannot protect us against – the scale of environmental injustices; the subtle nuances of loss and grief that transcend place; or the domestic violences that manifest within.

Here, we speak with Julie about her work Rescript, a ritual for living and ongoing connection, which will be presented on Sunday, January 17.

Liberty: Your work situates the audience as witness, not to the spectacle of violence, but to the aftermath. What is the significance of these cumulative acts of witnessing, hearing, documenting and reconciling with consequences?

Julie: It is hard not to be overwhelmed by events unfolding in our worlds and in response know how to be effective or make sense of it. This is why the starting points for my work often grapple with such events while the work itself is the process of distillation to arrive at a kind of charged minimal place. I see this process as research, where you pose a question and you approach it from many different angles until you find not so much the answer but the resonance.

Part of the journey for me is to open up a space beyond the main event (eg wildfire, earthquake, civil war, detention, extinction) and to find a place where I can invite people to be with me to focus for a long slow moment on some aspect of the after-effects. The resulting gestures are designed to be open in such a way they embrace an audience rather than alienate them. I suppose I am engaging in a remembering, one that reminds us the hard or significant work is often after the main event itself. This work is often messy, mundane, gradual, sometimes unknown and feeds into my concerns for multispecies care and ongoingness.

How do you approach the delicate balance between power, truth and care in illuminating these often-overlooked shadows and untold stories? Do you construct your work from your own perspective, from the position of the audience, or beyond? 

I approach my work with a delicate tension. It is one that attempts to balance not only my personal investment with the investment of the audience as witness but also with the verity of the materials present. So for example in my work I Stand In, an audience member volunteers to “stand in” for an anonymous body to undergo a stylised corpse washing ritual in a space energetically held by the audience. At all times I am the conduit and it is the stand-in body that is pivotal. At the same time the material body of an audience member becomes witness and witnessed not only in the action of the moment but in the accumulation of imprinted shrouds within the space. In Bloodstock, another more personal work linked to the death of my father, blood types and the anonymous blood donor become the material that allows me to interrogate blood ties, points of difference, and the invisible borders we construct.

How have you experienced working with memories, often of the deeply personal kind, and transforming them into a shared experience? How do you reconcile with the process of recalling and recreating something ephemeral, externalising it, materialising it? 

Working with memory or experience is an energy I draw on to personally focus while I am in a work. However it is important to state it is not the sole purpose of the work (for all the reasons I have stated previously), it is rather the heartbeat for greater concerns.

Rescript, the work I will be presenting within Requiem, is a work coming from an intensely personal experience. I can’t get away from the fact the actual material I am working with is part of the home I share, a home that was transformed when wildfire swept through it in December 2019. In the performative context the personal nature of the work attempts to land inside the materiality of the ash in order to ripple through an inbetween space — the temporary and ephemeral installation.

The intention is to gather the material elements, the artist-as-conduit, and the audience-as-witness into a shared space in order to provide an opportunity to consider what home is. It is a moment to acknowledge home goes beyond the walls of a human house. Where there is one home there is many in all shapes, sizes, and configurations and each of these multispecies abodes add to the richness.

By working with the ash, which is the residual material of multispecies bodies and their homes, I am bringing their presence into the installation to remind us they are still here (albeit transformed) engaged in the necessary ongoing vital processes of complex world building for many, as must we.

Rescript by Julie Vulcan will be presented at Sydney Festival on Sunday January 17 from 12-3pm at Paddington Reservoir, as part of the Requiem exhibition.

Julie Vulcan is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher and writer. Her work spanning performance, installation, and digital media has been presented nationally and internationally. Her writing has appeared in a Power publication, arts journals and independent publications alongside flash fictions for social media platforms. A PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney her current research draws on feminist, new materialist and environmental humanities discourse to interrogate notions of the dark and inform speculative imaginings for future worlds here and now. Julie lives and works on Gundungurra and Tharawal country South West of Sydney.

Header image: Crimson rosella bathing after the fire by Julie Vulcan.

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