A Conversation with Harriet Body


Thom and Angelmouse, Best Friends In A Tunnel, 2018, digital collage paste-up, 100 x 140 cm, image courtesy Firstdraft

Paired at Firstdraft in Woolloomooloo, Sydney is the culmination of in-depth investigation by Harriet Body of collaborations between artists with and without disabilities. Body, who has maintained a collaborative creative relationship for several years with Thom Roberts at Studio A, has traveled throughout Australia and elsewhere to visit progressive art studios with a specific interest in collaboration.

In Paired, Body brings together a wide range of collaborative pairs, including artists who transitioned from facilitator to collaborator in a progressive art studio, a mother and son who make work together, among others.

Collaboration is a delicate dynamic of the progressive art studio zeitgeist which raises important questions about the role of the facilitator and responsibilities of the studio itself. Body shared valuable insights from this fascinating and important work in a recent discussion with us:

Disparate Minds: You've spent the past several years exploring the idea of collaboration between artists with and without developmental disabilities. Tell us how you started working with artists at Studio A, as well as how and when collaboration became an important dynamic of this field to pursue.

Harriet Body: I started as a volunteer at Studio A in early 2014. I had just submitted my Masters thesis – about presentness in creative action – and was a bit at a loss on what to do next, so I thought volunteering would be a good next step. 

On my first day volunteering, I was asked to assist Thom, who would later become my collaborator. Thom and I hit it off immediately. I was introduced to him as ‘Harriet’ and he looked me up and down and said “That’s not Harriet, that’s Angelmouse” – and I’ve been Angelmouse ever since. 

So it began that every Friday Thom and I would sit together, him working and me assisting – but the term ‘assisting’ felt wrong from the beginning. 

At first I would simply sit and watch him work. We’d both sit on the floor in ‘Thom’s Zone’ – a dedicated corner for Thom to work in at the back left corner of the studio – and chat about various things that interest him: trains, cities, photocopies, people’s faces. Well, ‘chat’ is maybe the wrong word. Thom verbalises his ideas in quite a poetic way. He re-names people, places and things and will sometimes launch into long, repetitive poetic monologues that are peppered with his invented nouns. 

As the weeks went on, I became more and more proficient in ‘Thom language’ and as I fell deeper into his world, I began to understand his process more. I found that making art together was the most effective and natural way for us to communicate and ‘meet’ each other. Thom would invite me to contribute to his creative practice by saying things like “let’s make trains move” or “let’s make buildings next”. Through collaborating, I was able to access Thom’s world, and Thom was able to accept me. 

It was from here that our collaboration grew. I applied for some funding from our state government arts funding body, CreateNSW, to develop our first collaborative artwork, a large multi-channel video installation titled ‘City Circle Arrives at Cloud Heaven’, which we exhibited at the Underbelly Arts Festival in 2015.

I think there are a couple of major reasons why Thom and my working relationship became collaborative so quickly. Firstly, Thom is so confident and skilled in his art practice, that when I was asked to assist him, I wasn’t sure how I could do this without influencing the work and bringing my own ideas and creative vision into it. Secondly, I had come to Studio A as a volunteer, with absolutely no agenda or intention except to experience the studio. If I had been recruited as a paid employee, my intention and the studio’s expectation of my role would have been entirely different. This is a really important point: I have never been paid to work with Thom, and never would I accept money to collaborate with him. Any funds that we receive in artist fees or sales are distributed between us fairly, in direct consultation and agreement with Studio A, who work to support Thom and his best interests. I’ve actually since been employed by Studio A part-time to work on their social media and online marketing, but Thom and my collaboration is completely separate to that. The question of payment in these sorts of relationships is a really important one, and one that has significant implications to the validity of a true collaboration. 

Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to reconcile about our collaboration together is that conceptual discussions surrounding the collaboration is largely my domain. I am so interested in the collaboration – I’ve even curated an exhibition inspired by it! – But I worry about where Thom’s voice is in that. This interview for example: I can talk forever about my interests in our work together, and my experiences of collaborating with Thom, but it’s significant that Thom’s voice is missing from that. Often I feel like I’m talking about him, and not with him. As far as I can tell, Thom has no interest whatsoever in the sorts of ideas that I’m always banging on about. What I can say with certainty is that Thom likes to spend time with me, making art and having fun in the studio. Our friendship is so special, and really it is the most important thing that has come from our work together. He has even dedicated himself godfather to my soon-to-be-born baby, an honorary role that I’m sure he’ll maintain for the rest of our lives. 

DM: How would you characterize your and Thom’s respective bodies of work abstract of your collaborative endeavors? How does working together draw upon, amplify, or diverge from your individual approaches to art-making?

HB: On the surface, my art practice as Harriet Body differs hugely from my art practice as Angelmouse. The pseudonym is perhaps necessary as I sometimes feel that it is this Thom-created persona, Angelmouse, who contributes to this collaboration – not Harriet. Though of course, Angelmouse is Harriet.

My individual art practice is quiet, personal, and minimal. I work with paper, embroidery, and ceramic. Thom and Angelmouse’s work, however, is loud, funny and boisterous. We work with low-fi animation, and digital collage. We make huge, multi-channel video installations and paste massive prints on newsprint paper directly onto gallery walls. 

On a deeper level, I think the similarity between my individual practice and my role in the collaboration lies in my interest in observation and presentness. In my solo work I observe space; time; my own existence in any given moment. I experiment with chance and possibility and am fascinated by the tension between marks in space. Similarly, I feel that as Angelmouse I have switched from observing myself, to now observing Thom, his experience, his acceptance of me, and the tension between the two of us. As if it is us that have become the marks in space that I’m fascinated with.

And so, the work of Thom and Angelmouse is more immediately recognisable as Thom’s work, than it is my work.

Thom’s individual practice is colourful and varied. As a member of the Studio A collective he works collaboratively with the Studio A team in making performance, textiles and design. Individually, he creates large paintings – cartoonish portraits that are very funny and very cool. Thom has an excellent sense of humour that comes through in all of the work he makes. He has the perfect skill for caricature – a simple moustache on a cone-headed three-eyed face gives you an exact feeling for the person he is trying to replicate – you feel you know that person, like you’ve met them before.

Public transport, cityscapes and towers inspire much of Thom’s work, and these all also feature heavily in the work of Thom and Angelmouse, as they are the subjects we connect on and talk about. Thom and Angelmouse use Thom’s interests in these city-based infrastructures to examine our partnership and our individual existences in the same world. 

Paired installation view, photo credit: Zan Wimberley

DM: Currently, there's an exhibition you curated at Firstdraft in Sydney featuring eight collaborative projects. Can you expand on Paired and specific artists or works that are included?  

HB: Paired is an exhibition of eight collaborative projects between artists with and without intellectual/developmental disability or complex needs. It features seven Australia-based collaborations, as well as one project from Hastings, UK.

Paired was inspired by my own experience collaborating with Thom. I’ve spent the past 18 months seeking out collaborations similar to Thom and Angelmouse, even traveling to San Francisco, Paris, and the UK in 2017.

In my research I discovered that these sorts of collaborative relationships are primarily occurring through programs initiated by supported and progressive studios.  While traditionally these studios would invite outside artists to assist and support the studio artists, I think that there has been a slow, and somewhat cautious movement towards these studios inviting outside artists in to the studio as a way to expand the studio artist’s networks and professional creative relationships - and through this, collaboration has been made possible. 

I say ‘slow and cautious’ because I do think there is some resistance to the idea of collaboration. I think this is down to these studios’ adherence to traditional values of the progressive studio - being to provide a space that supports artists with disability to act with full autonomy in their own creative practice. It’s important to note that all collaborations I’ve included in the exhibition are between artists who have thriving individual art practices of their own, and that the collaborative projects they are involved in are in addition to their solo practices, and not in replacement of. True collaboration should contribute to and support the advocacy that progressive studios do so well.

Four of the collaborative projects I’ve chosen to include in the exhibition exist as a result of artist networking programs developed by Australia-based progressive studios, Studio A in Sydney, Arts Project Australia in Melbourne, and Tutti Arts in Adelaide. I chose collaborations that grew out of these programs that I felt were ‘true’ collaborations – those that withstood time and that engendered a strong friendship between collaborators. These four collaborations were Thom and Angelmouse and Rosie Deacon and Emily Crockford (both supported by Studio A), Catherine Bell and Cathy Staughton (supported by Arts Project Australia) and Henry Jock Walker and Scott Pyle (supported by Tutti Arts). 

The other four collaborations in the exhibition were chosen to illustrate the types of creative and collaborative relationships that exist outside of the progressive studio context, and to examine the, often blurry, lines that exist within these sorts of collaborative relationships between facilitation and collaboration.

For example, the work of Arunan Dharmalingam and Jessica Hodgkinson – Jessica is paid to support Arunan and makes many creative decisions in the production of his work. While she is hesitant to define their relationship as collaborative, the fact remains that the beautiful work that results from their partnership would not exist without both of their creative input.

Also showing is a collaborative project between Kate Adams and her son Paul Colley. Kate is the director of UK-based progressive studio, Project Art Works. Paul has a profound cognitive impairment and we cannot know how he sees himself as an artist, nor can he knowingly consent to creating a collaborative artwork. However, the work Kate has made with Paul is profound and incredibly moving, and I believe that we are so fortunate that it exists in the world.

The last two exhibited collaborators are brothers in law Glenn Barkley and John Havilah, along with John’s wife, Glenda, and the duo behind award winning children’s book series, Cheeky Dogs, Johanna Bell and Dion Beasley.

Paired installation view, photo credit: Zan Wimberley

Rosie Deacon and Emily Crockford, Tree Bear Punk Queens of the Desert (detail), 2018, photo credit: Zan Wimberley

DM: You raise an important point about consent with regards to the work of Paul Colly; these issues are complex. Prince famously sued a family who posted a YouTube video of their baby dancing to one of his songs; although many have felt it important to allow something like that video to exist,  Prince felt it was his right to dictate how his voice is heard and known in the world. In the case of artists comparable to Paul, we find ourselves unable to know to what degree they understand the endeavor and furthermore questioning, if they understood it as we do, would they object?

HB: I can’t comment too much on the intentions of Kate and Paul’s greater creative practices without feeling like I was speaking for them. The Not Knowing of Another is the title of the work made by Kate and Paul that I’ve included in the exhibition. My understanding of the work is that it both examines and negotiates the distance between Kate and Paul. The work observes a walk that Paul takes regularly, a walk that I perceive Paul as very much enjoying. The work is incredibly moving in its exploration of Paul’s being in the world, by observing him in a space that appears both familiar and extraordinary. I think the fact of the work being made by mother and son is significant and I see in the work a remarkable desire for understanding and acceptance that, to me, is profound.

DM: Over the course of your travels to progressive art studios, you must have seen diverse practices that aren’t regarded as collaborative despite similar qualities, as well as studios who establish rules and practices with regard to collaboration that are highly varied in nature and efficacy. We've witnessed unchecked collaboration which can be problematic - a dominant (neurotypical) personality stifling the potential work of specific artists (or even an entire studio) by creating an environment in which art-making is understood as just playing a role in a previously established project idea. 

In your practice with Thom and selection of collaborative pairs for this exhibition, it's clear that you are mindful of setting certain boundaries and rules: the fact that you aren't paid and that you and Thom both maintain separate creative practices. Could you expand a bit more on this specifically?  

HB: I think what is absolutely crucial for the legitimacy and ethicality of these sorts of collaborations is that there are structures in place that exist to support the artist with disability. Studio A is completely integral to the way that Thom and my collaboration functions, as they work entirely in the best interest of Thom - negotiating artist fees, administrative tasks, and checking in regularly to watch the work grow and develop. 

Not all of the collaborations in Paired exist within a progressive studio context and I chose these particular collaborations to showcase the diverse environments in which these collaborations grow and develop. However, every single collaboration exhibited does have an exterior person or group of people who work closely with the pair in the best interest of the collaborator with disability. In the cases of collaborations that don’t exist within a progressive studio this has perhaps happened instinctively or organically, with significant input and support coming from people whose concerns lie with the collaborator with disability - whether it be carer, support worker, or family member.

Perhaps ideally, all of these types of collaborations should be monitored by professionals - such as those working in progressive studios - whose role is specific to the support of these artists, and are expected to work within organisational policy and answer to operational directors. And there should be systems and policies put in place by these organisations that are specific to providing support to these collaborations.

DM: If you were to list some general guidelines for a progressive art studio interested in making room for integrated collaborative relationships, what would be the crucial points?

HB: Firstly there needs to be systems in place that allow artists working inside and outside the progressive studio to meet and meaningfully connect. This could be through encouraging studio visits, organising meet and greet sessions or - as both Arts Project Australia and Studio A have done, develop specific artist pairing programs that introduce artists from outside of the studio to work on a specific project with the studio. Collaboration needs time to develop naturally between artist pairs who feel inspired by one another, and who get on well. 

Secondly, if a collaboration arises - the studio must take on the responsibility of negotiation, working in the best interest of the artists with the disability. Negotiation of terms, duration, projects, payment, responsibilities - all of this should be taken on by the progressive studio.

DM: What are you currently excited about working on in the studio? What upcoming projects or exhibitions do you have planned? 

HB: My next big project is having my first baby in September! I also have a solo exhibition opening in August - a new body of work that encompasses embroidery on linen canvas and ceramic installation. 

I am also working on an accessible dance project with my friend and fellow artist, Deb Mansfield, that works with community groups in a free-form dance practice. It’s a beautiful project that I’m really excited about - there's something about the presentness and immediacy of dance that allows one to access that precious space of equity between bodies in space.