Interview by Gabby Loo
Radical Ecologies presses on notions surrounding the human body, our inherent interactions with others and the multidimensional natural world. This exhibition at PICA presents a diverse range of cutting edge work from Western Australia’s most noteworthy contemporary artists. Particularly featured artists Peter & Molly, prior to the exhibition’s opening I sat down with them to discuss their collaborative work in the exhibition and the tinkering behind it all.
What are your favourite artworks?
Peter: One of the largest inspirations for me is Marina Abramović’s work. For personal reasons and the love of the art itself.
Molly: Particularly, her early relationship with Ulay and their collaboration together. Peter was going to embark on this trip to MONA in Tasmania by himself, so I was like hey I don’t know you but I’ll come along. We’d only been friends for a few weeks.
When we saw Marina and Ulay’s collaborative works at MONA we realised we could collaborate in a similar sort of fashion because we have qualities the other person didn’t have. Peter is a film artist, and I’m a sound artist. We both write differently, and think differently.
Peter: There are a lot of people in Perth social networks and I’m both fans of their work as well as friends. Abdul Abdullah, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Nathan Beard, David Collins, and Olga Cironis, she’s almost like a mum to me. It’s very easy to be inspired by the people around you. Especially when there are so many amazing artists in close proximity. Pony Express are awesome. They’re also in Radical Ecologies, I’m very excited to experience their Eco-sexual sauna.
Molly: I’m a huge fan of artists that deal with ethical, or perhaps social or political problems like Ai Wei Wei and Santiago Seirra. I love their ideas and criticisms they offer.
In the Peter and Molly collaboration there is a big sense of questioning power dynamic. Between the hierarchy of humans over other species, particularly with the Superior Animal series. Is it the first time animals have been involved in your video works?
Molly: Superior Animal is one of the first. Our first video work collaboration began with Peter asking me if I could paint him gold (Celestial Perversion, 2016). That’s when we decided to look at unrequited love. How we can draw on religion as a parallel to that, or a deity as analogous to a non-responsive lover. In Celestial Perversion Peter is perpetually falling and consuming all of these self-sacrifices that I’m offering him. Eventually I offer my body and he consumes me. From that first collaboration we continued to draw upon power dynamics, and this idea that we are using one another as a tool in the creation of artworks. Because we don’t have the qualities, abilities or capacities the other person has.
From there we looked at further ethical problems or issues of moral stupefaction, where people don’t realise they’re doing things that are morally or ethically wrong or can’t provide a reason for why one act may be morally wrong while another is morally permissible. We began with the animal liberalist movement, which seems to act as a parody of other liberalist movements. We made other works that fit with in the series that we chose not to show, because we don’t want to bombard people. An example of a work that I really love which didn’t make the cut for this series is Superior Animal V.
Peter: It was number five but filmed first. It’s the piece where I’m kissing a fish.
Molly: The work speaks to the divide between zoophilia and bestiality. The idea that when we consume an animal, there is a very intimate quality to the process. We put an animal up against our mouths, we ingest it, and then we completely ignore that intimacy. There is a gap between the perception of the living animal and the utility. We don’t often consider that bestial quality.
Peter: It’s self-satisfaction to no gain of the animal.
Molly: Yeah it’s about human gratification, in Superior Animal V. I stand in front and I cry perpetually.
It was sort of humorous to have this image of you weeping then Peter at the back holding the fish quite intimately.
Molly: I think the work is beautiful. Peter is going at it with this fish, and I suppose my role is to mourn the loss of the fish and the human via infidelity. I really like that this is how Superior Animal started, with a fish make out.
Peter: We then came up Superior Animal I with the octopi in the bathtub. We numbered the works after they had been edited, and filmed.
Molly: We wanted to build an uncomfortable viewing experience as the films are shown.
Peter: I try to handle most of the image editing and Molly controls the audio and music elements. We have similar aesthetic and stylistic elements. We both know what we like, we just happen to be on the same page.
Molly: We had both been looking for someone to collaborate with since the beginning of time, because you can’t do everything. A lot of artists have hands on the ground, and I don’t like the idea of paying someone else to do the things I can’t. It wouldn’t feel like my work. I like that we happened to find each other and share the same ideas and values.
There hasn’t been any tension yet in terms of disagreeing on larger elements. Our major ideas come through and we understand each other. Hopefully it continues this way, we’ve only been collaborating for about a year. We originally started on a different project called Safe Sex.
Peter: We have multiple projects going all the time, for the most part we try and keep a little separation between the projects so the messages aren’t too convoluted.
That’s great to hear you have a constant flow of art in your lives, how many projects would you say are currently running?
Molly: We have our Peter & Molly works and Peter has ‘Perth Artists’. We also have Safe Sex, and Advertivid Global, where we make stupid adverts to sell things people can’t actually buy. It’s for fun.
We’re also looking into collaborating with an organisation to amplify the voices of refugees in off shore detention centres. We consider ourselves to be non-violent direct action activists. Non-violent action seems to be the best way to access people. I consider the animal liberalist works we have at Radical Ecologies to be non-violent presentations. We’ve been able to talk about an ongoing issue in a new light. We know that forcing a dead cow into someone’s face doesn’t often work, so we considered how else we could explore and express the idea that the animal utility is problematic.
It does remind me of this documentary about Bruce Bickford (crazy animator who worked for Frank Zappa) where he talks about how useless it is for countries to spend money on physical wars. When really they should be exploring war through artistic means. Non-violent activism is definitely the way to go.
How would you guys describe your Superior Animal series?
SUPERIOR ANIMAL SERIES
Peter: There are four works presented at Radical Ecologies starting from Superior Animal I to IV. We have a sound block and a four channel video installation in Gallery 3 on the main floor.
Molly: We have one projection on the ceiling, then three that seem to hug you in the front. We’ve tried to make it quite immersive because the sound is broken up around the speakers. So it kind of moves around you in the space. It feels like your encased in this sea lock. Each of the works shift in atmosphere, and contain an individual narrative. All of the animals we’ve used are aquatic animals because we wanted to look at the social belongingness theory, speaking to the inherent social separation between sea and land.
Molly: The whole work ran for a number of hours, but you get pieces of the narrative formed throughout. At the beginning we’re sitting in a bathtub face to face, wearing these octopi telepathy helmets. The bathtub then starts to fill with this black ink, it represents a purging of thought. We try to manipulate ourselves in order to communicate better by pressing the octopi legs together. At the end of the video you’re left alone with the octopi, these empty carcasses. That’s a really sad moment. For me at least.
Peter: In each of our works we have an atonement offered to each of the animals.
Molly: Yeah so each of the works were very uncomfortable to experience. We filmed SA I in winter and throughout the work the water decreases in temperature. So by the end of the work the water is glacial and we’re shivering.
It speaks to animal utility. We don’t see animals as having intrinsic value, so we wanted to take the octopi and apply an instrumental value to them that isn’t usual. To get people to think about how they use and abuse animals. There are a lot of layers to the works. We’ve taken a social epistemological point of view, to encourage people to think about how they personally navigate themselves in the world in relation to animals.
SUPERIOR ANIMAL II
Peter: SA II deals with the leeches on our bodies. We had to travel to a Leech clinic in Sydney for this one. Whilst you can get leeches in WA, we wanted to create our artworks in a safe and controlled environment, so we chose to go to a professional clinic where we could get leech treatment or therapy. Which, in itself is really bizarre. It’s a sort of out-dated method.
Molly: Leeches do have a medicinal quality, even in modern medicine they still use leeches for blood clots or back pain. In SA II we wanted to re-structure the trophic level by allowing leeches to feed on us. So again applying the intrinsic value to the leeches. We also wanted to present the leeches as if they were needles, something to be used and discarded. When we have the leeches on us you can see when they become full they drop off and we start bleeding. We do bleed quite profusely because they have an anti-congealing agent in their saliva which stops blood from clotting. So we were bleeding for about 48 hours after. We had to wear menstrual pads on the places they fed from, but we also wanted to have a fun time in Sydney. So we went out with these big menstrual pads attached to us, Peter looked Neanderthalic.
Peter: Unfortunately, at the end of the artwork the leeches are frozen, which is apparently the kindest way to discard of leeches. They can’t be re-used of course, but they are capable of holding onto the consumed blood for years at a time until they need to feed again. Like miniature camels.
Molly: We gave them their last meal and that was sad, to know they had to die afterwards because you do become attached to them. You’ve had them on your body for such a long and intense period. I became really attached to mine. They do leave these bullet hole scars for 6 months or so.
Peter: The locations the leeches were placed on were our heads, hearts and wrists. The scars that took the longest to heal were the ones on our hearts. It’s a corny metaphor.
Molly: Throughout the final piece text appears on the screen and you can hear our voices saying, “I CAN’T WAKE YOU UP IF YOU’RE PRETENDING TO BE ASLEEP.” It’s this idea that we’re aware on some level of this speciesism and social hierarchy between humans and animals, but as a social group nobody seems to be really taking action. It reminds me of this conversation I had with my dad where he was perpetually denying these ethical issues I was raising with him. He was trying to morally justify them in the most naïve fashion and it seemed he was trying to protect his actions rather than cementing his beliefs, that’s what prompted that line. That dissonance. We really wanted that to stick into people’s minds.
SUPERIOR ANIMAL III
Molly: The third work in the series is the saddest of all the works. In this work we wanted to extract pearls from oysters. I spent a long time making these pearl suits, that Peter hates because they were really heavy and uncomfortable.
Peter: It was definitely the hardest of all our works to film. We had to fly up to a Broome Oyster farm. We were lucky enough to have Willy Creek Pearls take us under their wing for the day. Up in Broome it was 40 plus degree heat in the sun, and because of the costumes and the way they were glued onto our skin we couldn’t wear sunscreen. We were wearing these contacts to give us white, pearl-like eyes that temporarily blinded us. We had no shoes and walked across these jagged rocks to get to the filming spot. We were completely frustrated with the situation.
Molly: We didn’t know who to be angry at, we could only blame ourselves.
In the work itself, there is a symbiotic relationship between the oyster and the pea crab. Every oyster has a pea crab inside it and they all look exactly the same.
Peter: When you open up the oyster you are effectively murdering the animal, and it cannot come back together again.
Molly: It’s a sad process. When the pea crab is a small foetus, it finds it’s oyster. They find each other in infancy, they grow up together and they share this non-parasitic, symbiotic relationship. The pea crab eats all of the dirt in the oyster shell, and the oyster filters in and out. They live this whole life together. So when the oyster dies the pea crab is thrown back into the water and it has to find a new home. Often all the homes are taken and the pea crab dies alone.
Peter: As a developed pea crab it’s rare they’ll relocate to a home. They can’t fit in anywhere; they’re left in this purgatory underwater.
Molly: The sound installation for this work is from the perspective of the pea crab, we recorded live sounds of the shells cracking, the oysters being pulled from the water, you get this sad sound installation of what this pea crab is experiencing. That’s the perspective we wanted to offer people. We also wanted to show greed, gluttony and over consumption with these pearl costumes that are adorned in an unnecessary amount of pearls. That was the saddest work for me, to come home and write about that. I found it very hard.
SUPERIOR ANIMAL IV
Peter: The final work is very shocking and breaks you from the sadness you’ve been lowered into. It’s abrupt and it appears above you and that’s Superior Animal IV. It’s the only work I don’t appear in, but I’m there dunking Molly’s head into the tank.
Molly: In this work I have watercolour on my face, like make up. So when I’m being dunked into the water it disperses from my face. It speaks to this idea that there’s a human imitation of the animal environment that becomes an inert aesthetic in the human world. It becomes a form of wallpaper. We don’t even notice that the animal is there. It’s interesting that it stops becoming an animal, and instead holds the basic properties of a thing.
Peter: It’s the fish in a tank, it’s overlooked in the space.
Molly: We wanted to grab somebody and say look at this, it’s here and always has fucking been here. It’s like gaining the perspective of the bullied victim in films, when they show a kid getting their head dunked into the toilet. Similar to that aesthetic, it’s shocking and abrupt. Throughout the work I’m trying to say as my head is getting dunked into the water, in this very elephant man-esque manner, “I am not an animal.” It’s exploring the social hierarchy or speciesism we mentioned earlier, it’s the human trying to deny their part in the animal world. We wanted to confront people with that final work. It suddenly appears above you and it’s a bit scary with these intense and aggressive drumming sounds. That work lasts about 20 seconds. I think it was a nice way to finish the series to give people a gentle, non-violent activist slap.
Why is it that you choose to create these works as video art, and would you do live performance art in the future?
Molly: Yes, I think the reason why we’ve made video performance art instead of engaging in live performance is because we didn’t know how to access the performance art world. We didn’t know where we could perform, how or where, we didn’t really know if anyone would give a shit or show up. We had to build credibility first, but we feel ready to start performing live now so that’s exciting. We have ideas for interactive artworks we’d like people to get engaged with, we haven’t actually booked anything yet but it is definitely on the horizon.
Peter: We want to try sculptural and object based works too. Social superiority can be shaped very nicely in live performance, but we haven’t had a chance to develop other areas yet.
Molly: I really want to do a live performance work in an elevator, I like the idea of trapping people with you in the space for 10 seconds. I think you can really have a lot to say in 10 seconds, and I just want us to be given that 10 seconds [laughs]. To manipulate the environment and see how people react to that would be interesting.
Radical Ecologies at PICA runs until the 4th of September. Don’t miss Peter and Molly’s work tucked into Gallery 3 on the main floor!