How to talk

HarvestOpening weekend public programWe Need To Talk: Feminism and FoodMaiwar Green, GOMAReflect on the relationship between women and food within a contemporary art context, in conversation with members of Brisbane’s LEVEL artist-run initiative and 'Harvest' exhibition curator Ellie Buttrose. Bring along a special recipe or food story to share over a picnic and take the opportunity to connect with local feminist arts practitioners.LEVEL is an artist-run-initiative and feminist collective, co-founded in 2010 by Courtney Coombs, Rachael Haynes and Alice Lang, and joined by Caitlin Franzmann, Anita Holtsclaw and Courtney Pedersen in 2013.LEVEL focuses on providing opportunities for female visual artists and generating dialogue around gender, feminism and contemporary art. This manifests in artist residencies, exhibition projects and exchanges, forums and critical discussions. Informing our approach are models of collaboration and collectivity and a commitment to critical engagement with the diversity of women’s contemporary arts practices.By strengthening relationships between artists, writers and curators, LEVEL seeks to provide a new platform for discussion; LEVELing the playing field.
‘We Need To Talk’, Level, 2014. Photographer: Joe Ruckli. Image courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

As we near the end of this mammoth edition, it’s exciting to be able to talk about the future.

You may already know about our partnerships with groups like the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus, our affiliation with initiatives like WrICE, or our support and engagement with various festivals and events. But you might not be aware of our desire to share space/pass the mic/open up doors to colleagues and friends in the visual arts sphere.

Did you know? These are things we are interested in!

And so, we’re delighted today to introduce both PHOTODUST (check this earlier post) and Level, a feminist artist run initiative based in Brisbane.

In part, we share these conversations today to showcase the diverse ways of working that are part and parcel of what we do here at Peril, and to recognise the energy and engagement that these partners offer us in terms of thinking, reflecting and generally working through our respective organisational viewpoints.

At Peril, we don’t see “partnership” as merely sub-contracting or other purely transactional relationships, relationships that mimic some of the colonial/capitalist/structural norms that our work challenges. In fact, when things go right, we find the way that we work together, with our partners and with the arts community art large is a reflection of the values and mission that we hold dear to the organisation.

We talked earlier with Hiroki Kobayashi about guilt, diversity and tokenism and shared with you a cultural partnerships tool that we were trialling and soliciting feedback to. Thank you to those of you who took the time to review the tool and to share your thoughts with us. At the end of this edition (after we fall in an exhausted mess), we are going to review these submissions and, a little while after that, share a further iteration of the tool, which we hope will be of use for other organisations.

In the meantime we thought why act like there was a tiny man in a green suit behind the curtain: cultural partnerships blah blah whatever what? It’s not that complicated, surely, learning to collaborate is just a version of learning to talk to each other, isn’t it? Sure. But it’s also learning how to listen.

Level’s work is focused on generating dialogue around gender, feminism and contemporary art and they specialise in the kinds of participatory artworks that make you both giggle and think, with tender picnics, bad assFemioke interspersed with forums, dialogues and exhibitions. We first came across their work via the Marginasia edition, connecting with collective member, Caitlin Franzmann and her collaborator/conversator, Merve Kaptan. And while the collective members don’t necessarily identify as Asian Australian as individuals, or – unlike Photodust – have a specific remit around the Asia Pacific region, we were interested in talking further with them about the way they work, and if they’d consider working with us.

Be gracious while we share our working out. Who knows, the collaboration may manifest as something bigger, but then again it might not.

The future is all possibility.


From Eleanor Jackson
To Caitlin Franzmann
CC Nikki Lam
May 11, 2016

Hi Caitlin,

Thanks so much for agreeing to be a part of this conversation between Peril and Level. I have also included Nikki Lam, our Visual Arts Editor, in this conversation so that she is aware of our thinking, even as she is soon to be traveling and may not be as involved at this early stage.

I think it’s important from the outset not to pretend that this is an illusory arm’s-length chat; you and I know we are friends and colleagues and in a sense we’re brokering something quite artificial here. (I’d like to include a “lol” here but, as you can see, I’m trying to put on my professional face.)

I’ve been thinking a bit about a Maggie Nelson quote from Argonauts about “crappy fiction”, the way that it “purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out”. I know that she’s talking about literary fiction, but somehow it has stayed with me with regards to the fiction of depersonalised authenticity, the way we privilege the masculine, professional, externalised, the white lens of “separatedness”. I don’t know if any of these issues will come up in the course of our dialogue, but I hope it is appropriate to take as a starting point that for me, and for many at Peril, the political is personal just as the personal is political.

So please know that you have my personal gratitude and political respect for your willingness to have this conversation: questions of art, culture, feminism and race are not always easy to grapple with – for so many complicated and understandable reasons. I question sometimes if I am capable of asking them of myself to the full extent.

I’ve attached here for your reference a copy of the Yvonne Rainer/Carola Dertnig conversation/essay, “Some Exercise in Complex Seeing is Needed”, and well, it might sound pretentious, but I thought we could use it as a format for an ongoing exchange about our potential collaboration. I would like to publish the conversation as part of our upcoming edition “Asians to Watch Out For” in a sense that this exchange might have a foreshadowing element (“Watch out! Peril + Level coming!”), and because I’d like to be transparent about how Peril works and share process around what intercultural collaboration can look like. And I loved that Yvonne and Carola just both seemed too pressed for time to be able to collaborate on their originally proposed essay, reminding me of the great podcast, DTFD, by the journalist, Julia Barton, that she used to record, literally, over the kitchen sink because she was too busy “Doing the F*cking Dishes” to do a podcast.

And so, with much run up, I’d like to start a conversation about the idea of a joint edition with Level, around the idea of “conversations”, even as I think we probably need a better title than that.

I very much enjoyed the conversation that we featured between yourself and Merve Kaptan as part of our Marginasia edition, its sense of structure and yet informality, looking inside into the relationship of contemplation and conversation as it related to both of your work. I remember attending the Level forum for one International Women’s Day, “We Need to Listen”, and listening so raptly to Arahmaiani, the Indonesian artist, and wishing I had found a chance to talk with her further after the event. I am sure I am not alone in that feeling.

I wonder if there is a way to facilitate some more conversations between artists/curators/writers who identify as women, people with heritage links to Australia and Asia, who might be willing to share “exposed intimacies” around their respective practices? People are always quoting Steve Jobs that creativity is just “connecting things”; would connecting people be a potential starting point for us both? In a sense, we would hand over “space”, making room for Level to lead these conversations (an act of trust), but also share our thinking about how we work (how we look at, look into and look out of imaginary Asia) and then invite a broader Peril readership to view/question/engage with it (a gesture of openness and curiosity).

I have also shared a recent document we have been working on here, around cultural partnerships. The document is a bit “plopped on” as we’d ideally like to couple it with some framing and context, but it does give you some insight into the organisational values we often see as important in terms of culture. Level is a feminist organisation, what does that mean for your ways of working, what partnerships/collaborations work best for your team, in line with your politics and praxis? Do you mind having all these dorky questions fired at you this way? 🙂

Anyway, that’s enough for now, I hope that this opens up some thoughts for Level and that you all know a bit more about what we do and how we do it, and maybe we can keep “talking”.


To Eleanor Jackson
From Caitlin Franzmann
CC Nikki Lam, Courtney Coombs, Courtney Pedersen, Rachael Haynes, Anita Holtsclaw
June 6, 2016

Hi Eleanor,

Thanks for your email. This has been a really good starting point for Level to think about the project and all of the questions we each have as individuals regarding, as you say, the not always easy questions surrounding art, culture, race and feminism.  I, too, have included the rest of the Level team into this email exchange so that they can join the conversation that has been manifesting between to two of us.

I think the reason it has taken me so long to respond to your email is that I get the sense this written communication is not like our impromptu phone or in-person conversations and that I should  (voice in my head) choose my words more carefully. It feels self conscious already. This brings forth a desire within me to find better ways to record conversations – ways to maintain the rawness of the moment. Regardless of this, I too really enjoy how conversational style text (self conscious or not) provides alternatives to a singular unchallenged voice.

Level is a collective – a collective of artists, arts workers, academics, mothers, sisters, lovers (queer and not), daughters, friends…with genealogies from across the globe. So at this point I should add that I am writing this email as Caitlin, not as a Caitlin representing all of the opinions or experiences of Level.  We are not an organisation of the type that Peril’s cultural competency policy seems to address.  However reading Peril’s draft policy document does highlight some facets of how we work and who we work with. We are, as individuals, aware of our privileges and try to remain conscious of this when seeking ways to ‘level the playing field’.  Whilst our main focus has been the representation of and discourse around women in contemporary art, we very much seek to include, listen to and share ideas with individuals representing a breadth of the Australian (and I could even say predominantly Brisbane) creative community of women, individuals identifying as transgender, queer or questioning and feminist allies. For me, dialogue, empathic listening and collaboration are critical to how Level operates. Most of our projects (workshops, picnics, etc) involve generating conversation.  And to develop these projects, there are many conversations that occur within the collective to reach a point of consensus for a way forward. Sometimes it flows, sometimes there is awkwardness.

You recently sent me this article – a written dialogue between Brian Blanchfield and Maggie Nelson about poetry, gender and friendship.  In it, Maggie Nelson recalls an in-conversation between Barbara Hammer and Silas Howard and reflects on their differences being “fascinating points for conversation, overlap and observation, rather than occasions for rift, competition or non-understanding”. She puts this down to their “deep mutual respect, broadness of vision, openness and light heartedness, and real sense of solidarity”.  I wondered how a community gets to that point of mutual respect and sense of solidarity for difference to be seen as opportunity? Wouldn’t it be through conversation? I love Maggie’s sense of optimism when she says “This was a tent in which everyone could party, and it gave me hope for all our futures”.  Maybe that is what I hope for with this series of Peril+Level conversations.  That whilst they might be a sharing of personal stories/reflections/thoughts, the words may be accessible to many others with a desire to challenge their own perspectives and/or continue the conversation with someone else.

What strikes me most about this possible collaboration between Level and Peril, is that we are two small organisations/collectives made up of individuals that are passionate about fighting for equality in this gigantic island we call home. We (I’m certain I can say we here) share your view that the personal is political and the political is personal. I’m for a Feel Tank (I love that this title is kind of a joke but not).

Level recently met to talk about this project with Peril and came to a resolve that there is still discussion required within our collective of what our involvement would mean and what we feel we can offer. Courtney C has recently been intrigued by the Delphi Method as an approach to reach some kind of consensus on an issue.  It is quite a structured form of communication which was originally devised as a forecasting method relying on a panel of experts. It involves a series of initial questions, an external facilitator providing a summary of responses and several rounds of revisions to earlier answers until the range of answers decreases. Whilst it might seem incredibly contrary to all of the points I have made above about the value of fluid conversation, we thought it could be an interesting approach for Level to experiment with in terms of coming to some kind of consensus on this project. We will keep a record of this process and keep you updated with the outcome.

You mentioned that you are tentatively holding a space for Level on Friday the 24 June.  Could you elaborate on what the ‘space’ means?  Would you like something to be published on this date, with a program of curated conversations set out? I know that June might be a tricky month for most of us with the university semester wrapping up.  I will speak to everyone this week and in the meantime, please let us know how you think it would best work with Peril’s timeframes.

Much love.

To Caitlin Franzmann
From Eleanor Jackson
CC Nikki Lam, Courtney Coombs, Courtney Pedersen, Rachael Haynes, Anita Holtsclaw
June 14, 2016

Dear Caitlin, Courtney C, Courtney P, Rachael and Anita,

Thank you all for being a part of this strangely constructed “conversation”. And you too, Nikki, for watching patiently from afar!

Yes, let’s keep talking and manifesting and feeling complicated and confused, I don’t mind this complexity at all, and in fact it’s deliciously thought-provoking – what does Level’s model pose for Peril? (Do I speak on behalf of Peril? Can Nikki and I do so?) We work on the basis of deep agreement and consent at Peril but, in fact, our model includes quite a lot of “separate” but “related” streams of work. This feels more like autonomy of opinion prevails over consensus.

Recently, with another colleague, Hiroki Koybayashi of the Emerging Writers/Melbourne Writers Festival and I shared an actual “conversation” using some very basic technology and a process of back and forth that I would say was equally, but differently awkward. I am pretty sure I speak for both Hiroki and I to say that we felt acutely aware of the “staginess” of our conversation. But perhaps Level/Peril can embrace this staginess in a camp/Sontag kind of way, accepting a lack of authenticity in the exchange, but affectionately so.

Either that, or perhaps the eventual conversations – however they do or do not eventuate – can include far more typos, blanched sentences, half-ended thoughts and other junk, much like a real conversation. Don’t worry if you’re not an organisation as the policy envisages, I think we can keep talking on the ways we both work and this is a very healthy process, interrogating ourselves by mutual, gentle reveals. I love that there are picnics in your praxis at Level.

It is interesting for me to revisit this conversation just following the tragic events in Orlando, Florida, feeling as I do right now a particular rawness as a person, as a queer person, watching friends (both near and far) and those I so intimately recognise as “could be friends/lovers” and feeling the intermixture of grief and rage. I too wonder when communities will reach places of deep mutual respect. I hope I am not being too ambitious to strive for a kind of love within that respect.

I’ll meet you in the Feel Tank for sure.

I looked up the Delphi Method and it seems very curious – structured, derived in the Cold War, yet named for the tongue-gabbling Delphi – exciting! I would be honoured if Level were to apply such a thoughtful response to the question of a potential collaboration.

When I mentioned “holding space”, I apologise for using a term also overlaid with physical connotations, a sense of the activist/ally about it too, when what I meant (far more prosaic) was that I have held a slot for sharing this conversation on the Peril website for June 24. We are looking to wrap up the first part of the edition then and it would be nice to foreshadow what else may be coming up. What are we “watching out for” as an organisation, so to speak.

We have also been receiving feedback on the cultural feedback tool and I thought this might be a nice way to expose/complicate the issue of what we mean by partnership and collaboration. An example to something previously quite abstracted.

I would propose to share this email chain – minus people’s personal details of course – with the wide open caveat that “this” (the emails, the conversations, the proposed partnership) may all amount to “nothing” (no partnership, no edition, no formality) because we are both still in the process of meeting, of talking, of establishing the trust that would be required to share labour. I would not consider this in any way a failure, or a negative, if we were to merely open these conversations and then elect to close them at a later time because it was not right for the people involved. Peril might be an “organisation” (people + policies + practice) but we are really just people.

Would Level like to consider sharing this exchange on that date? This could be a first, minimum decision perhaps to trial your Delphi methodology on.

If you are not collectively comfortable with sharing our thoughts publicly at this point, then I completely understand and I would very much enjoy continuing the conversation.

With warmth and respect,


Author: Level

LEVEL is an artist run initiative and feminist collective comprising Courtney Coombs, Caitlin Franzmann, Rachael Haynes, Courtney Pedersen and Anita Holtsclaw. LEVEL is focused on generating dialogue around gender, feminism and contemporary art through projects in different locations and contexts, manifesting as exhibitions, discussions, workshops and participatory artworks. LEVEL seeks to provide a new platform for discussion; LEVELing the playing field.

Your thoughts?