Q&A with Cementa15 artists

From 9 to 12 April, 2015, over 60 contemporary artists from both Sydney and regional NSW will participate in Cementa15, an arts festival that celebrates the state of contemporary art in Australia and the community of artists that generate this strange, challenging, and wonderful way of looking and thinking about the world. NAVA spoke to some of those artists about the strategies and challenges experienced when producing their work.

NAVA spoke to a number of Cementa15 artists about their practice and asked them to reflect on some of the intellectual implications that skill creates in their works.

Click here to find out more about Cementa15.

Nicole Barakat

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

Skill is a vital aspect of the works that I make. I approach my work with two key elements of traditional (and contemporary) textile practice, love and patience. It is with love and patience that I am able to learn new skills and most importantly, execute the work. I see meaning and intention as embedded within the very threads of the works I make. The materials become my language and the process of making, my poetry. Through refined skills, the language I am using can become powerful. I am able to communicate with those who encounter my work on an emotional and intuitive level. I speak best without the use of words!

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

I see this as an opportunity to expand my skill set. If possible, I will teach myself or seek the assistance of others that are skilled in the area. There is also the option of collaboration, which is a very useful and satisfying strategy in art making!

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

My intention was to create a large number of heavily stitched works, but quickly remembered that repetitive stitching is hard on my body, especially my neck and shoulders. I resolved this by expanding my piece into a body of work that includes drawings and minimally stitched pieces.

Image: Nicole Barakat

Meditation (Decolonisation) is an intuitive response to two significant things I found on my first visit to Kandos;

  1. a wealth of embroidered traced linen doilies in the op shop
  2. a blunt description of the 1824 brutal massacre of Wiradjuri people in the Capertee Valley

Image: Nicole Barakat, Meditation (Decolonisation) detail. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mark Booth

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

Skill plays a very important role in the production of my work. It is heavily process-based in both construction technique and surface finish. I believe skill is so integral to my work that in a recent show I ran 2 time lapse films documenting my studio practice over the period of a year in the hope that they would generate a greater appreciation and understanding of the labour involved in the realisation of the works.

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

I don't believe in not having the relevant skills to complete a project. If I'm faced with a problem during the construction process I will endeavour to work it out through trial and error using the knowledge I have of the materials and tools at my disposal, or I'll seek advice from those who are perhaps more experienced in that particular area. For example I have, through much practice and repetition, had to become a competent spray painter in order to achieve the sophisticated surface finishes that my sculptures require.

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

The greatest challenge has been creating a large sculpture that can be dismantled and reassembled in situ. The reason for this procedure is to enable the form to be displayed in a confined space no matter how small the entrance to it is. This was achieved through the division of the sculpture into a series of registered sections that can be moved individually into a space and then screwed back together in sequence to once again create the whole.


Mark Booth

Scale (proportion in relation to perception) is important in the development of the sculpture. Recognition of its mass is influenced by the volume that surrounds it. The work is a grey monochrome, creating an illusion of materiality – it appears to be constructed from a base material other than plastic.

Image credit: cold steel (22.300-90°), 2014, 1420mmH x 1700mmW x 1420mmD, U-PVC pipe, steel screws, matt acrylic paint, fluorescent light. Image courtesy of the artist.

Elizabeth Day

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

I have learned through acquiring many skills (mainly through an art school education) but also learning as I go, the value of simply having the confidence to do anything and be able to enlist help and advice as well. Most projects I do require a different set of skills to the ones I already have. Maybe that is part of the pleasure of making art that skills are part of the process of enquiry.

In the current work that I am making I have required skills as a teacher/communicator, installation practitioner in how I use the space, and craftsperson to name a few.

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

Most of these skills that might be new territory for me, would be technological, though I do get things fabricated. Where I don't have adequate space or equipment, I employ help or seek advice from friends. Much of my work currently is collaborative and having a team of diverse skills is a great way to go.

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

I chose to make the work with mushrooms partly because I thought it suited a non-art country audience (if they do get to see it). Though most of my practice came out of the history of abstraction and land related conceptual practitioners such as Robert Smithson, the making of mushrooms provided a focus for the interest in craft that is prevalent in Kandos and Rylestone. I have attended some of the local groups to meet people and enlist their participation in making a "crop" of fungi which is the central image. I wanted people to make mushrooms out of anything and even to devise their own inventions as to how they made the mushrooms. This has happened to a large extent and this project is an ongoing one.

The skill i.e. the perfection of the craft (which is certainly evident in some) was not as significant as the fact of participation in this interconnected and in a way, quite abstract image. I also wanted by inviting artist friends from Sydney and other places to bring in other ideas about fungi. There's an inherent art/craft conversation happening I hope in the various technologies and processes of production.

Knitted mushrooms with mycelia made from string.

The work engages with history and the rhizome root structure proposes a non-nuclear community such as is manifest by CEMENTA 2015, a place of vital, transformative creative exchange. Fungi are the third "F" Flora, Fauna and Fungi is now recognised by scientists to be perhaps closer to the animal kingdom that to plants. The significance of the underground network of fungi are recognised by scientists such as Dr Paul Stamet as having profound ecological significance. The mycelia are transmitters of nutrients between species, breaking down what is dead and building new futures. I hope in this work to transpose some of this meaning in the processes I have engaged.

Image: Elizabeth Day, Knitted mushrooms with mycelia made from string, detail. Image courtesy of the artist.

Karen Golland

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

Skill is a strange thing. Honed and perfect in one moment, clumsy and unattainable the next. I trained as a printmaker so for many years skill meant practiced precision. These days skill plays a different role in my art making. My focus isn't always on the polish; I'm much more curious about what's been collected along the way. The skills that bring the most value to my practice are flexible, and support encounters with different ways of making. They are adaptable and intuitive, and occasional fumbling is part of their nature.

My work for Cementa 15 has involved making pom poms with many people from my daily life. We've all learnt this one simple skill and then used it on repeat, making many hundreds of the same thing together. Creating work like this in my own home, with those who form an important part of my everyday has required its own set of skills. This way of working is lively and sometimes unpredictable, and I was very aware of wanting those involved to enjoy the process and feel they could contribute as much or little to the development as they wished.

I've found I'm a much kinder when working with those I love. I tend to be quite critical of what I make when working alone and like that I'm more attentive to the simple pleasure of making when working with others. I'm quietly hoping these skills are transferable. Having been through a long period of making very little I found this shared creating and the skills it generated quickly sparked many new directions for my art making. So many hands working in close proximity seems to generate ideas and skill sharing, and this in turn has intensified the meaning and value of my work

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

There are hidden pockets of skill all about the place. The challenge is matching up need with knowledge, so that you can dip in at the moment you're floundering about. Over the years I've had to pull my brave socks up and ask for help. There are a whole bunch of skills I don't have, but that I need to get stuff done. And I guess it's not just about finding and asking. It's also about filling your pockets up so that you can be part of the exchange.

And then there's google. That's a definite strategy.

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

My work for Cementa 15 grew quickly and finding materials to support this growth has been an ongoing challenge. I initially planned to work with only one material, nylon knitting ribbon. My art making often begins with craft materials that have failed to transform into intention and early on I enthusiastically declared that each and every roll would be sourced second hand from local op shops or garage sales… A few months in it became clear that I would have to source another material. The answer came to my door in the shape of a mattress. Having not purchased many new things I was surprised to find this one arrive in it's own enormous plastic bag. Being uncertain what to do with such a large amount of plastic, I sliced it up into ribbon sized threads and began making pom poms. It's a much more difficult material to work with than tule, and quickly multiplied making time… but with one simple phone call I had more than enough to make more than enough.


The nature of things.

Things come and go; it is in their nature.

Karen Golland's art making practice draws on the rich history of Australian handicraft and the transformative power that comes from turning one thing into another. Her works often begin with a collection of discarded craft items, each paying careful attention to their social history and methods of production. As her partner died, Karen's home became a place of communal making. The process of binding materials to create a pom pom became a way of connecting with other people's experience of death and disrupting the silence of loss.

Grief wound its way into new acts of creation. This accumulation became 'The nature of things.'

Image: Karen Golland, The nature of things, install at Bundanon. Image courtesy of the artist.

Melanie E Khava

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

Formally unschooled in the traditional sense of 'artist' -alternately termed thinker/maker as I prefer – for me the idea of skill initially presented as menacing. However, time and experience opened meaning and individual recognition that skill or the acquisition of skills was attainable through the practice of art, and offered interesting challenges, an ongoing quest for continual experimentation, and one hopes, a presentation of art.

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

Strategic employment of the unknown in relation to skill, promotes investigative excitement. I embrace with a curiosity what is unknown. Once I've an idea for an artwork that will require personally undeveloped skills, I set about acquiring skill through the making of work until the unknown becomes known. The more investigation is seen in the final work, the more satisfaction I feel.

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

The conception and production of my/our work for cementa15 which involves an engagement with Kandos High School art students and their teacher Kat Brown, developed from a desire to step my/ourselves out of safe confinement and private art practice, into a situation of potential connection, response and reflection. The challenges, anticipated and managed via personal care and friendship, navigated terrain of unsettling space, to place, to space and on, in a dialogue both personal and communicative, with all ultimately merging into an installation fondly and tentatively titled: '16boardsx2'.

Image: Melanie E Khava

Image: Melanie E Khava, 16boardsx2. Image courtesy of the artist.

Dani Marti

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

  • Skill is important, but not essential to the work.
  • All can be learned these days, and there is not any particular skill within my practice that defines it.
  • Referring mainly to technical skills.
  • There is lots of patience and obsession.
  • The best skill to have: good taste, charm and a good set of teeth/smile.

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

  • Learn them or surrender to the situation and used the best possible way the ones that i have already. It forces you to push them further and to explore new territories with them.
  • Good to know your limitations and not to get 'lost' in overcoming them.
  • They are there for a reason , it is just a matter of making the most of them.
  • It's a balancing act... between learning new ones and developing the ones you have.
  • For example when I started making video, I had to learn a new set of skills, FAST: editing, lighting, sound, acting, filming...

What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

  • None. It was important for me to go to Kandos and spend a couple of days and to be aware of what other works where been produced for CEMENTA15.
  • Craft and and its social/relational context is very important and in some instances a survival tool for those women in small country communities.
  • Filming of 'Stitch 'n Bitch': the main challenge I faced was the ethics in the creative process, as the camera rolled relentlessly for the duration of 4 weeks, being aware that the subjects would not be aware that they were been observed and captured on camera constantly.


Stitch 'n Bitch.

Stitch 'n Bitch documentation of a women's sewing circle, filmed over two months with some members of the local 'Stitch 'n Bitch' - Wollombi, NSW.

Image: Dani Marti, Stitch 'n Bitch video still image, hdv 4h, 24' 34". Courtesy of the artist.

Margaret Roberts

What role does skill play in the value or meaning of your work?

It goes without saying that conceptual and technical skills play an essential role in the meaning and value of anyone's work, mine included. This is because conceptual skills are essential for the decision-making needed to make any artwork, and that includes decisions about the role and nature technical skills play in the work. Together, conceptual and technical skills determine the material and spatial form of works, and how that material and space is treated.

I feel myself to be part of the recent art movement away from art-specific skills and materials and towards more generic and everyday materials and skills, where content is sought less in representation, and more in the form of the work, including the role and nature of technical skill. This seems to be part of the 20thC movement towards the external context of a work and away from its interior—including the merging of art and life, minimalism's focus on the space of the viewer, site-specificity, installation and so on.

Thus I think that I and everyone I know take for granted that the level and nature of technical skill contributes to a work's meaning because it determines a work's language or form (by which I mean its material and that material's treatment or use and spatial arrangement/mobility etc). For example, in Polygon Landscape 2013 (an installation in the Kandos Scout Hall in Cementa13) I used everyday, non-art-specific material (cardboard) that was shaped and located using everyday technical skills (shaped by cutting with a circular saw, and placed using gravity and visitors' ability to carry the cardboard shapes) and located in an everyday place (a non-art building in a country town). The intention was to direct interest towards seeing the work within an everyday more than an art-specific context - including seeing the work in relation to the layout of houses in Kandos and their vulnerability to the fire and weather conditions to which other regions had recently been subject. At the same time, the apparent 'abstraction' of the cardboard shapes is intended to build bridges between the esoteric mystery of abstraction in art, and the more familiar abstraction of well-known objects (such as the houses you live in or often walk by) that you sometimes can't recognise because not enough information is provided (as also happens when you forget your glasses or it is nighttime).

What strategies do you employ when presented with projects that you don't have the skills to complete?

When I am 'presented with projects that I don't have the skills to complete', the possibilities are to:

  • develop the skills through my own experimentation or by doing a course designed by others, or
  • ask someone else to do whatever part of the process I can't do myself in exchange for money or some collaborative arrangement, or
  • find materials and objects that are readymade (ie already made with other's skills), or
  • use my conceptual skills to design a work in which others people's conceptual and technical skills are part of its materials, etc.or
  • anything else I can think of at the time.
  • For example in making Polygon Landscape, I knew from past experience that triwall cardboard is cut best with a circular saw, which I did not have, nor did I have good enough skills to use one well or safely. So I paid an artist friend to cut the shapes after I had marked them out on cardboard that I had bought and had delivered. (That past experience had come from working with an architect and artist to design and cut triwall cardboard in an earlier project.) The cardboard shapes could be as long as 2m or as wide as 1m, which means they need to be transported in a large van—which was kindly provided by Cementa Services.

    What challenges have you faced in conceiving or producing your work for Cementa15 and how did you resolve them?

    'Challenges' include the research needed to understand the subject that the Williams River Valley Artists' Group had made our current project—coal and CSG mining. As with previous projects, we did this research by 'residency'—in this case by visiting Camp Wando at Maules Creek during their 2014 weekends of workshops and protest actions. Out of that (and from the memory of a work many of us had seen in the last Venice Biennale) came the seed of an idea for a collaborative performance, which is still being workshopped to become the core of Instruments of Democracy in the Scout Hall in Kandos in April. This project will also include individual works by artists in the group—'challenges' include how to make curved legs with wheels for the small black shapes I am planning, which I addressed by paying a welder-friend to make. Other 'challenges' include finding enough time to make that work, after having also spent time writing this text.



    I think of my art practice is an exploration of relationships between the abstract space of artworks and the physical space in which they are located.

    Image: Margaret Roberts, Polygon Landscape, 2013, triwall cardboard, Kandos town. Photo: Jo Rankine. Image courtesy of the artist.