In August, lockdown-weary Melburnians passing by a busy intersection in St Kilda were greeted — for a moment — with the words “never alone” emblazoned across a bright digital billboard.
Surrounding those words was a vivid, tessellated pattern, made from a single image of a nankeen night heron taken by Kent Morris, a Melbourne-based artist and descendant of the Barkindji people of north-western New South Wales.
“During this COVID-19 period … I think we’ve seen a reframing of how we collectively perceive time; we remember the past, we have an anxious present, and there’s an uncertain future ahead of us,” Morris says.
“[But the billboard is saying] that we are part of something greater.”
He says that moving forward, we need to think ourselves as part of a community, connected to the past, present and the future.
“And, of course, the greater universe and galaxy — which many Indigenous language groups and creation stories [tell us] we’re all part of and we’re not separated from.”
The billboard is located halfway between two significant First Nations cultural and meeting places on Yaluk-ut Weelam country: the Ngargee (Bunurong Corroboree) Tree and Cleve Gardens.
“Those places have memories and stories … and visiting these places, you’re never alone,” Morris says.
The artist says he’s seen an outpouring of passionate responses to the billboard, with many people expressing that the artwork has given them “a sense of connection”.
As galleries in Melbourne remain closed, and others in the rest of Australia reopen in altered circumstances, Morris and other Australian artists are making work — whether in person, online, or in the street — that speaks to connection, dislocation and what it means to be human in 2020.
Morris is the CEO of prison art program The Torch, and was a finalist in the 2020 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Awards.
His art practice is centred around “reshaping and rethinking” the built environment to more clearly reflect the long Indigenous history of our country, always using imagery of native birds.
Like many others during the pandemic, Morris has found himself walking the streets of his neighbourhood in Yaluk-ut Weelam country (Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay area).
Since the pandemic began, Morris has seen local bodies of water become cleaner and clearer, and out on night walks he has begun spotting the nankeen night heron, usually a “very secretive and elusive bird”.
“Whenever I didn’t see the nankeen night heron on my walks, it was almost like missing a family member or a close friend, and I felt that this is how we should feel … [about] the natural world,” he says.
These are the reflections that animate Morris’s billboard, a commission from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and the first in a series of projects the Melbourne gallery is launching in the lead-up to its 2021 exhibition, Who’s Afraid of Public Space?
Morris says the way he’s formulated and arranged his image of the heron “creates beautiful interconnecting patterns”.
“[It’s akin to] the geometric patterns we see carved into trees and beautiful belongings — whether they be boomerang shields, possum-skin cloaks — these are the shapes and designs of country, of knowledge, of systems of kinship,” he says.
‘A release of loneliness’
Early on in the pandemic, Merinda Davies — a performance, installation and multimedia artist, based in Kombumerri country in South East Queensland — was forced to self-quarantine due to a case of the flu.
“I started writing down notes on how my body was feeling, not having any human touch with other people, and I realised that I really navigate my world through human connection to others,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s just someone putting their hand on my arm, or it’s a hug with a friend, it’s a hug with a family member, it’s a hug with someone I haven’t seen in a long time, or sometimes it’s my yoga teacher resting their hand on me.”
She says this lack of touch — what researchers call “skin hunger” — was impacting her emotionally and physically.
“Five days in [of being alone] I could feel this kind of hollowness in my chest,” she says.
Later, when she was approached by Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art to create a work specifically around touch (for its exhibition Making Art Work), she came up with Imprints: “A service for those suffering from social distance”.
In Imprints, a participant clad in PPE (and after a thorough sanitisation process), spends a moment being held by Davies.
“I really wanted to think about the imprints on our bodies without touch and also the imprints that are happening to the environment because of all of the personal protective equipment that is being used now,” she says.
The decision to use single-use PPE — which is in short supply in some hospitals — in the artwork was an “ethical quandary” for Davies, whose work often explores environmental degradation.
“Sometimes it’s actually important to use [the objects], to show something — to be able to actually get the impact. And of course, to actually safely do this we had to use proper PPE,” she says.
She recently performed a three-hour session of Imprints at IMA, and another is scheduled in October.
“What was really interesting for me in performing this work was the accumulation … so there’s that type of accumulation of the detritus waste of the single-use PPE piling up, but then there’s the accumulation of emotions being imprinted onto my body as I held each person,” Davies says.
She says those emotions included fear, sadness and feeling of being overwhelmed.
‘How does it feel?’
Before the pandemic, artist and choreographer Amrita Hepi and psychiatrist and writer Sam Lieblich had been working on a dance theatre-work with the guiding question: “How does it feel?”
The work emerged out of Hepi and Lieblich’s interests in chatbots, AI, interviews, philosophy, dance, extinction events and language.
But Lieblich says as the first lockdown in Melbourne began and arts went online, they asked themselves: “How do you make it something more than just a recording? How do you make dance that isn’t just a video of a dance?”
Their chatbot, named Neighbour, is an attempt to answer that question.
“We came upon the idea of a participatory work that is generating something at the moment that the user or the viewer is interacting with it, so that they’re experiencing the immediacy that comes from art,” Lieblich says.
Responding to the ACCA Open call out for new digital works in April, Hepi and Lieblich adapted their idea and brought it to the gallery.
Neighbour is a chatbot that appears on ACCA’s website, masquerading as a virtual assistant, but instead of helping you, you are helping it answer the artists’ original question: “How does it feel?”
Hepi says: “Neighbour is there to try to get you to think about navigating the map of your own feelings and self.”
It’s not clear exactly what the “it” is (or the “how”) that Neighbour is asking about, but the chatbot is doggedly and cheekily determined to try to get to the bottom of “it” nonetheless.
Lieblich says they “tried to train an AI that would understand how to deal with the weirdness that emerges [from that central question]”.
As you engage in a tete-a-tete with the bot, it throws poetry and lyrics, gifs of Hepi and Lieblich, and more questions at you. It also flirts with you.
Hepi says: “In a lot of ways, the pandemic catapulted Neighbour into being.”
“This constant questioning of, ‘How does it feel?’ I think is something that we’re grappling with [right now], maybe in our unconscious in some way.”
The artists say the responses have been varied but include humorous interactions, and a fixation with Jeffrey Epstein and communism.
Hepi says answers to, “How does it feel?” have so far included “like a soft loss” and “like a gentle reaching”.
Lieblich says one of the things the duo initially considered was alienation in this time of hyperconnectivity — but says this isn’t a work responding to loneliness; Neighbour isn’t meant to be your neighbour.
He says: “Rather, we wanted to work with people who interacted with the bot to try and answer the question: How do we use these technologies to not in-fact be lonely? Can communities emerge from this?