Aimee Board in conversation with Tara Gilbee

Traces Unseen curator Aimee Board talks to artist Tara Gilbee about her practice.

Tara Gilbee, ‘Untitled’ (Solagraph – Nepean Quarantine Station (4) 6 months), 2017-2019,

digital scan of original photographic record, dimensions variable.

AB: Your current series of solagraphs continues on themes explored in your earlier series of photograms You Must Remember This. Can you tell about these recent forensic tracings and how this new series came about?

TG: Yes, the series You must remember this was an opportunity to revisit photogram artwork I'd started exploring in my undergraduate years. I was away on my second residency in France, where I had already been looking at language and text, as well as the translation of communication in my first residency.

On this residency, I got the opportunity to work at an art school ENSA in  Bourges (https://www.ensa-bourges.fr/index.php/fr/). I was looking at notes, and the idea of handwriting as a type of forensic analysis, but also the way that language can translate itself materially, so the script, how it can be expanded larger, and the hand of the author can be scrutinized through negative and positive space. I was doing a series of drawings where I had found notes, and I blew them up quite a large. One of the notes was a shopping list that my daughter had written with backwards writing and that sort of thing. I'd blown that up quite large and just meditated over that text, around the space in between the text, and filled in those spaces with dark ink in a drawing process.

Then when I was in the photographic studio, I was looking at the material that the writing was actually on, and how that could become a part of the exposure in the work. The transformation and transmogrification of the text and its support material, so then the material it was scribbled on merged and created those layers that gave the writing itself more of a transcript of time and place. Because the piece of paper that it was written on, and in the way that it found its way to me, whether it was screwed up, or stored on, or ripped off a notice board, that sort of thing. I did some work in some other languages in other notes that I found, but I just chose the ones that had the most interesting material support.

In this way both the photogram work and the pinhole photography at the Quarantine site are lifting and layering traces. Mixing histories in the process and exploring the material ways in which the process acts and forms meaning within the image.

AB: These new tracings of the ephemeral not only draw from the material and geographical site, but also you're bringing this layer of historical evidence into your tracings?

TG: Yes, and I think it's central to the works in general. It's a concept of the body and its absence. With the writing, it's the mark that's left behind by a body or an author that's not there anymore. Then that forensic tracing of that, so the material of the site, or the space, or the place that the body  inhabited and moved on from-- There's always a sense of the body within, but in a very ephemeral and absent way.

AB: So linking to this current series and that exploration of presence and absence within this specific historical site.

TG: Yes, with the Quarantine Station, I think that the idea of the mark of the place, it's the proposition, the material acts in the space, the body only places the object there and then retreats. There's not so much of the body within the work. It's a concept of time more than anything in that work, but it refers to the idea of quarantine and the contained…

AB: Which is interesting in our current climate as well. What is the aim in documenting these sites?

TG: There's always often an autobiographical curiosity, and then there's thematic concerns that I return to again and this thematic concern of forensic traces has been ongoing since I left art school. One of the first artwork series I made, I requested people to draw me from memory as if I’d gone missing to create a series of imagined portraits from authors other than me. Then I worked as an artist in residence at The Royal Melbourne Hospital. During this time, I fingerprinted the lifts and documented this quickly before cleaning it away.You see, I had sourced some forensic dust from a police officer, and also I fingerprinted a room that a patient had been transferred from. That all comes from the background that my father was a policeman, and I'm interested in that forensic science, but it does also associate to my own medical experiences and ideas around the body. The forensic explorations are often trying to trace where the body is, or has been in space.

Then the focus on prisons and the quarantine space is a focus on those places that contain the body, and the imperative of the state to articulate that. I have done a fair bit of work in hospitals as a starting point, because obviously, my training (as a nurse) and then returning to this training hospital as an artist. So I was looking at other institutions that also overarch their relationship with the body. Especially, as in Foucault theories where he has written a lot about those spaces.

AB Your approach, the pinhole technique, there's an interesting conceptual link with this containment of what you're viewing through the pinhole with the history of these quarantine sites also. Was that a really conscious choice when employing this technique?

TG: Yes, solography and pinhole, it's just like trickery, really. The magic of the medium is one thing but its application to a specific site and concept expands it. There's lots of great qualities that can happen in any medium you choose. Whether it's a plastic toy camera, or large format, but it is the consciousness about how you employ that medium, in the same as drawing or sculpting, it has to translate to what's been expressed. With the pinhole, there's that idea. It's like the porthole that you look out through in a ship or a guard looks through to the inside of a cell. Or it has a really strong ocular and pupil effect which I think is quite evocative. However, if it's just applied as a technique anywhere, it may not be such a strong application, as when the medium relates to the context. I struggled with this aspect, as it can just look like nice pictures with a circular edge. Im still very interested in the composition of putting them together and the idea of their relationship to the site, I think is really important. As I have edited the images for this exhibition I have been more interested in some of the miniature marks on the paper. The way in which the exposure of the paper to the wind and moisture has weathered the artifact. In this way the image is more than a photographic record, it has surfaced the environment and these marks are a record of that weathering. I have progressed this idea on further and will present the photographic image broken into a sequence of details that show this marking. I see this extension as more related to surfacing the site over time.

AB:  The two images Untitled_Solagraph_Q2_12 mth and Untitled_Solagraph_Q4_12mth, are there particular tracings and markings that you can speak to specifically with either of these works?

Tara Gilbee, ‘Untitled’ (Solagraph – Nepean Quarantine Station (2) 12 months), 2017-2019,¬ digital scan of original photographic record, dimensions variable.

TG: Yes, there's one and it's just very abstract (Untitled_Solagraph_Q2_12), it just looks like a lot of lines and blotches with that marks on the surface and that one is a pinhole that wasn't looking at a horizon perspective. It was looking from within a tree on an angular perspective, looking up through the trees at the sky and it was unknown whether that would work because when you get water leakage, it'll destroy all the paper so it could have just destroyed itself. So materially, it was a bit of a tricky one to know.

AB: I sense there’s a real fragility in that process as well…

TG: Yes, and a lot of loss and a lot of failures. I would have liked to have more, I did a lot. However, some got thrown out, some destroyed, some disappeared, and then some got eaten by weevils that got into the tins, but that one, the marks on the paper from the moisture is what has caused that blackening effect. You can see some echo of the tree and you can see the lines of the sky of the rotation of the earth past the sun rising and falling and that's the transcription of the solagraph, it is basically, time in reference to the movement of the sun through the seasons.

It marks the sunrise and sunset for that period, whether it's six months or 12 months. For that one, there's this quality still of the landscape within the work that I find captivating in the quality of time passing with the lines and then the quality or the weathering on the surface and it is almost destroying itself. In general, a solgraph  doesn't exist once it gets exposed, its removal from the apparatus, has to be followed quickly with a digital recording via a scanner and then the light of the scanner and its removal revert the paper to a blank state and then it's gone. I have kept the scanned paper back in a black bag and will review to see if the trace remains at all, however I imagine they will not last, I am interested to see what reviewing them after they have been away will reveal though. A long time ago I was fascinated with the works of Oscar Muñoz whose poetic artworks materialize the fragility of memory and the very immaterial nature of images with a range of photographics means ( see http://www.jeudepaume.org/index.php?page=article&idArt=2061)

AB: They're like digital traces, you've referred to them as ‘inscribing the intangible’ and in my understanding, the deep memory of the site.

TG: Yes, they record or they transcribe that material, and the material itself then disappears which is a way that you can also come to understand that history. If you walk around the quarantine station, the thing that you sense more than anything is the absence of all of the activity, whether it was the years of training by the Military on the site or the Military occupation because that's the other purpose of Point Nepean, which is another institution and then in that early history of containment of disease and people in migration.

AB: This particular series is from the Point Nepean site or a different site?

TG: No, it's from Point Nepean. I did try to do work at the Manly Quarantine Station in Sydney originally, but there were too many roadblocks and then the Mornington Peninsula had set up an art residency at the Point Nepean Quarantine Station. I made a proposal to visit the site over two sessions, which got expanded to four. They let me go there over two years, which was very generous of them and I did short stays rather than a long stay, which worked better for my process, I think that is the way I tend to work best. I tend to work and reflect on the work for a fair while before I construct its final presentation and edit it, it's like writing. There's a lot of work that sits in the archives that's part of a series.

AB: Relating to the specific history or the Point Nepean site, was there anything from the archives that featured as part of your tracing? I guess this links through to the variants from the site’s history as well and your positioning again, physically and psychologically….

TG: Yes, the thing that struck me is that the quarantine station is not dissimilar to the detention centers for migrants and there is a whole loaded concept of entry. Conceptually this sits at the heart of the space, it was a protection point for the Bay and wider Melbourne. Before we were in this time of the COVID lock down , the quarantine station and also the military use of those points of entry were made a redundant concept through flights and airtravel. I was considering a lot the idea of what would happen if places of entry had to be renegotiated internationally through the outbreak of a pandemic, I was curious about the translation of disease such as SARS and Ebola and how place like airports may negotiate border control. It was inconceivable at the time when I was there, However I was thinking a lot around the contemporary conditions for Quarantine and how would this country deal with it? In this sense I was not surprised to see what has evolved.

The history of the site is really one of geographic protection and it is in the mindset of Australia. There is still a concept of geographic protection, where we have a privileged position of isolated points in which we can determine entry or exit. That's why I think it related to or brought me to the concept of detention of refugees in offshore. When you would visit the quarantine stations and the military points of protection they did seem redundant processes of the past. It seemed that when you visited the space that this was a quaint part of history, not unlike how I imagined Port Arthur and places, how convict settlements feel inconceivable as modern-day structures, but they are. They exist still in modern-day structures, just in this really abstracted sense of bureaucracy and within state functions that determine the body's entry or exit through border control and such procedures.

You can't help but contemplate the space in reference to privilege as well. My experience when I was there was also that there's this strange translation when you drive through the most affluent part of Victoria. Sorrento has the highest property prices etc.  and there's a high level of rich and well-established homes. Then you move onto this point which is preserved as a free-entry point for everyone but not a lot of people know about it. It's actually a public park that's accessed quite a lot but still, some people don't even know about it. There's a strange thing where you move through the space. Especially at Christmas time, where you move through these marauding summer crowds, and then you go into this very quiet space that anyone can be in and it's got a lot of parkland. I would move through the grounds during my time at the residency, move through the space and I think less over time, start to expand and realised I was "not looking with my eyes anymore. I'm feeling with my whole body for spaces that I want to settle in to expose."

You often follow this process with drawing, you'll sit down and you'll wait until you feel a space and then you'll draw it, but with photography, you usually go with eyes looking. It's a different way of photographing to sit. You have to actually sit with the apparatus when you do the pinhole. You have to sit with it and decide the exposure and it's really intuitive. You have to be a bit technical as well, I use my iPhone to count the seconds and make the field notes.

AB: The seconds relating to exposure?

TG: Yes. I generally sit wherever I've decided to locate the pinhole. These are different images to the solagraphs which are taped to a site and left to expose over a long period of time (generally 6-12mths for the images in this exhibition). With the pinhole apparatus, you pull open the cover that keeps out the light and then you decide the exposure in seconds it is left open. I quickly realized that it all has to be very well documented, to understand what conditions work best etc. In this way it became like a field expedition. I decided to write the time of day, the apparatus each had names and so I knew when they were finally processed back in the dark room what conditions worked for the exposure. -- Then I started to write the light conditions and the weather conditions, the sound conditions, the way I felt in my body, the noises I heard. I started a whole small synopsis of my body in the space at the time.

AB: It's like tying back to that forensic analysis of earlier works as well.

TG: Yes, the field notes are very much a scientific process because you can't repeat an experiment without having some knowledge and appraisal of the conditions in which you took it under.

If you have the material. The material aspects of photography are so random that you do need to have those conditions in notes, but the field notes expanded and the body came into it. It became a matter of  venturing through a space for hours and asking myself not just what I was seeing but how you I felt in that space? I wasn't sure how on earth I could encompass all of that, and I still don't know, but this was my process and this is what I want to expand further is how to bring that sense of the body and space to the artwork.

AB: Well, particularly, sites linked with trauma …you're documenting a complexity of feelings and the presence and the absence within…

TG: Sometimes I was bored and sometimes I was really quite captivated with the site. I started to sense the travel of the airplanes in the air just from the noise above and then the seasons were different because in summer, you had all the people on their party boats moored just off the beach and then in winter there wasn't anyone. There's this sense of fullness or emptiness in the periphery as well. Then the container ships going past, they're like trains that run on a schedule, and they have their different countries logos and destinations.

AB: So there's multiple transient layers going on through that space and tying back to this idea of an entry into the landscape/Australia. And the other work?..

TG: The other one Untitled_Solagraph_Q4_12mth) is taken from the police point residence and it shows the light in the sky and it's also a squiggle as you'll see in that. It looks at the silhouette, but there's the translation of car lights coming in and out at the back entrance there and so it actually shows the passage of other people at the residence as well as myself. It's like a transcription of the year of that space and people coming and going as well. It's very light.

Tara Gilbee, ‘Untitled’ (Solagraph – Nepean Quarantine Station (4) 12 months), 2017-2019,¬ digital scan of original photographic record, dimensions variable.

AB: You’re also exploring the graffiti at the site..

TG: Yes, so that’s the other thing that I haven't finished translating or exploring that I'm looking at both at Point Nepean and the Old Goal site in Bendigo (Ulumbra). There's this graffiti in the brickwork and down at Point Nepean, a lot of the soldiers and people visiting the site have made graffiti marks. I was thinking of re-translating another work that I've done where I've taken drawings (frottage) of a concrete picnic table that's got graffiti from the 1960s through to 2000 etc. I've basically drawn over the surface of that table with a soft paper and I elicited a trace.

I did a bit of online search regarding the history before I got there. There is the indigenous cultural heritage and greater losses through colonial history which is represented at the site as well. I was keen to explore this asect where I could.The Parks Victoria have staff and material on site to explore this.

Then there's also the Parks Victoria displays where you walk around the boiler room etc. They have got things in little glass cases. For example they had a curious item which is an old canvas straitjacket, they used to use these on patient who had a fever, to stop them from hurting themselves.

AB: So it was a psychiatric hospital as well?

TG: Yes, they're not dissimilar.

AB: As an aside, it brings to mind Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams’ video work Captain Thunderbolt’s Sisters and Red Rockers, 2010, in some ways. I guess, they’re tracing the history of site also, but in a more performative way.

TG: Yes its interesting, I think that the conflict I sometimes have with the solagraphs and the pinholes is in relation to the other sculptural work I was undertaking at VCA. It is a need to resolve what may be a romanticized view as opposed to a more visceral appraisal of the broader concepts . I think the pinhole and solagraphic work is quite evocative, and in that way, it could romanticize that space which is something that you want to avoid. I think this is an important consideration with historic sites as they're already quite layered with a romanticized sense. So I materially while I try and explore those absences, I want to be careful to not be too romantic and limit the material to beauty. It can be a trap. I think with the use of the absurd, the way in which I was exploring it within my sculpture and the work you mentioned by Mikala and Justene, that slapstick and absurd does actually sometimes highlight the horror more, or the political more than the romantic.

AB When you're thinking about the sites, the ‘spookiness’ you have mentioned, how do you not romanticize that?..

TG: Trying not to overwork a trope too much, because if it falls all to one side, it loses its tension, I think.

AB: Yes, I agree. So, to wrap up, thank you so much for sharing insights into your practice. Have you any additional thoughts on this solagraphic series and directions forward from here?..

TG: What I've expressed through this discussion is my prime motivations around the anthropological and forensic. This idea of looking at the layers of politics and the personal. Of the phenomenological body and its expression in creative process. In order to trace or tap into a site, almost like taking the pulse of a space, until the archive is large enough to edit and rearticulate something.

There's always a discovery in trying to take a material and then retranslate it, to put it forth again in a new way.