Butcher’s paper covered with ideas is splayed across the floor, laptops and bags lie on the table and Nicola Gunn is rolling up a yoga mat thoughtfully. We’re in the Merlyn Myer Room. It’s basically a function room wedged under the rear of the clam-like Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens and it’s currently serving as a rehearsal room.
Gunn along with her creative collaborators Gwen Holmberg-Gilchrist, Pier Carthew and Michael Fikaris, who together form Sans Hotel, is in the midst of developing a new interdisciplinary work, In spite of myself, due to premiere at this year’s Melbourne Festival in October.
Described as a ‘mind-bending exploration of the nebulous line between who we are, who we say we are and who we seem to be,’ In spite of myself examines the artistic career of Gunn’s self-named fictional character, artist Nicola Gunn, played of course, by Gunn. The work will incorporate video, sculpture, illustration, photography, text, audience debate and live performance along with a healthy dose of the playfully absurd.
Gunn describes the project as an experiment in myth making and a commentary on the contemporary art world’s reverence of the artist as art, citing the aura around Marina Abramovic as an example. ‘I think it’s parodying that.’ Albeit she adds with mock seriousness, ‘…in a very genuine way.’
In spite of myself will be accompanied by a participatory art exhibition, In spite of everything, a further tongue-in-cheek fiction, as it is a ‘retrospective’ of the work of her self-named fictional character.
The rehearsal space and development time are thanks to the support of the Art Centre Melbourne’s first artist-in-residency program, initiated by Gunn and Simon Abrahams, former Arts Centre Melbourne’s Program Manager, Artistic Development.
Further developing the twin-projects will be the major focus of her Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an Early Career Artist over the next two years. ‘This is phase 1’ says Gunn of the Melbourne Festival season. ‘Next year I’m sure the show will transform and morph.’
The Fellowship will also support an on-going mentorship, provide opportunities to explore working with local choreographers and dancers and assist her to improve her proficiency with digital layout and video editing tools.
Gunn started out creating solo-performance works for the Fringe Festival circuit, initially in Canada and then back in Australia. It was a serendipitous response to being kicked out of the VCA’s acting course after she’d studied Small Company and Community Theatre at Swinburne in the late 90s. ‘I just wasn’t an actor,’ she says. ‘I was a performer… and a theatre maker.
Over the past decade her numerous performance works have toured internationally and received considerable critical acclaim. Her last work, Hello my name is, described characteristically as ‘risky, edgy and yet comforting in a homemade, whimsical way’ won a Melbourne Fringe Best Experimental Performance Award (2012). The show will be remounted this month at the Brisbane Festival and will tour nationally next year supported by Performing Lines Mobile States .
In hindsight Gunn says her early work was very conventional and narrative-driven. More recently however, her work has been highly participatory and experimental, colluding with and involving the audience. Yet she now sees her practice shifting toward visual and live art.
‘I’m still interested in autobiography and stories but maybe just not so much my own. I feel like I’ve used that up,’ she laughs.
In October next year she will use her Fellowship to travel to the US for a residency at Florida State University working with Adjunct Professor of Performance Studies Daniel Sacks . In Spite of Everything was born, Gunn explains, when Sacks collaborated with her to write a quasi-fictional catalogue essay about ‘Gunn’s’ art works. The residency will allow them time to further explore ideas around the project’s themes of myth, blurred reality and art.
She will then visit Europe looking for, though she hates the word, ‘networking’ opportunities; seeking potential co-producers, co-commissions and further collaborations and pursue plans of eventually taking Sans Hotel’s shows to major festivals overseas.
It’s seems a bit gauche, Gunn says to phrase it as trying to ‘capitalising’ on her Fellowship but she thinks it will definitely help get people’s attention. ‘I‘m sure it has and will open a lot of doors for me.’
Hello my name is at Brisbane Festival from Tuesday 10th – 14th of September at the QUT Theatre Republic.
In Spite of Myself at Melbourne Festival from Wednesday 9th – 13th of October at the Fairfax Studio .
Nicola Gunn has also been funded by the Early Career Residency grant.