9 Apr 20

Living Libraries: Feminist histories in the art of Emily Floyd


The achievements of women more than often take more than one generation to come to light.

Emily Floyd1 Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

In 1975, International Women’s Year, the American feminist curator and critic Lucy Lippard visited Australia and delivered lectures in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.2 Lucy Lippard was sponsored by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney to deliver the ‘Power Lecture’ in major Australian cities in 1975. Her visit inspired a groundswell of feminist collective activities across the country, including the establishment of the Women’s Art Movement3 The Women’s Arts Movement was established in Adelaide in 1976 by artist Margaret Dodd. Significant early members included the curator Julie Ewington, and artist and theorist Anne Marsh. See http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1034b.htm, accessed 16 Oct. 2019., the Women’s Art Register,4 The Women’s Art Register was established in Melbourne in 1975 by artists Lesley Dumbrell and Erica McGilchrist, and curators Kiffy Rubbo and Meredith Rogers at the University of Melbourne’s Ewing and George Paton Galleries. Described as a ‘living archive of women’s art practice (cis, non-binary and trans inclusive)’, it is one of only two surviving registers of its kind. It is now housed at the Richmond Library in Melbourne and is accessible online: http://www.womensartregister.org, accessed 16 Oct. 2019. and the progressive feminist magazine LIP: A Feminist Arts Journal.5 LIP was authored and published by a collective that included artists Elizabeth Gower, Isabel Davies and Erica McGilchrist, and curators and art historians Janine Burke, Ann Stephen and Suzanne Davies. It was published from 1976 to 1984. In the past decade, a number of Australian artists, curators and art historians have looked back on this pivotal moment in Australian history, adopting its principles of collective action and mining its archives across a range of projects. Examples of this recent interest in late 1970s feminist activity include the exhibitions Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2017, and Re-Raising Consciousness, at Melbourne artist-run space TCB Art Inc. in 2014; research projects such as Contemporary Art and Feminism (CAF), established by a group of academics and curators in Sydney in 2013;6 See Contemporary Art and Feminism, https://contemporaryartandfeminism.com, accessed 16 Oct. 2019. the publication of a LIP magazine anthology, edited by the Amsterdam-based Australian curator Vivien Ziherl, also in 2013;7 Vivian Ziherl (ed.), The Lip Anthology: An Australian Feminist Arts Journal 1976–1984, Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2013. and even a restaging of Lippard’s 1975 lecture by the feminist pedagogical project Sunday School (artists Kelly Doley and Diana Smith), at Sydney’s Artspace in 2015.8 Sunday School (Kelly Doley and Diana Smith), ‘Feminist Futures: The Lucy R. Lippard Lecture’, 26 July 2015, Artspace, Sydney 2015.

The work of Melbourne contemporary artist Emily Floyd can also be seen in light of this resurgent interest in local feminist practices of the 1970s. Since the early 2000s, Floyd has productively mined a nexus between art, education and activism in a practice concerned with social and pedagogical engagement and political acts of historical retrieval. Over the course of her career she has gained widespread attention for bold sculptural and graphic works that suggest contemporary art can function as an instructive platform for social, political and cultural debate.

Floyd’s work draws upon wide-ranging references, including the history of alternative education and its relationship to twentieth-century art and design. It also brings to light contributions made by women to mainstream accounts of history, and how these contributions are often overlooked. Throughout her practice, Floyd has turned her attention to the achievements of various women, such as Bauhaus designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher who, 100 years after the Bauhaus was founded, is still not as widely known as her male counter- parts; the radical feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin; and, most recently, the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, whose international significance is widely celebrated but whose Australian connection remains largely unacknowledged.9 Prominent philosopher and social theorist Ágnes Heller was a core member of the Budapest School. Along with other members of the School, she chose to live in exile in Australia between 1977 and 1986 due to political persecution. She lived in Melbourne and lectured at La Trobe University, later relocating to New York City, where she lectured for more than twenty-five years at the New School for Social Research. Heller was the subject of Emily Floyd’s solo exhibition Anti-Totalitarian Vectors, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 13 July – 19 August 2019. See http://annaschwartzgallery.com/exhibitions/anti-totalitarian-vectors, accessed 17 Oct. 2019. Floyd’s work has also focused on histories of community participation, progressive childcare and political activism, in many cases inspired by local examples and her personal experience of growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s.

This influence can be seen in the three works commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2014 for the survey exhibition Emily Floyd: The Dawn. These three works – Solve your personal problems socially, 2014, a set of large-scale screenprints; The dawn, 2014, a monumental sculpture; and Word farm, 2014, a participatory children’s installation made by Floyd in collaboration with the designer Mary Featherston – each draw on archival material relating to specific local histories of feminism in Australia.

SOLVE YOUR PERSONAL PROBLEMS SOCIALLY
In 2012 Emily Floyd inherited an archive of material from her mother, Frances Floyd, a community activist who participated in feminist collectives in Melbourne in the 1970s and 1980s. It included posters, flyers, pamphlets and ephemeral material relating to workshops and demonstrations that Frances had been involved in, and in which Emily had also participated in as a child. Frances was an active member of the Melbourne Community Childcare Movement, a collective that provided practical advice for women on a range of issues, such as how to develop supportive networks and child-care cooperatives. She was also editor of the Movement’s progressive magazine Ripple, several issues of which were included in the archive Frances handed down to Emily. Articles in Ripple were collectively authored by the group’s members, among them the renowned Australian modernist designer Mary Featherston, who was responsible for the bold graphics and layout of the magazine.10 Other members included Eva Cox, Ruth Crow, Winsome McCaughey, Sue Morris and Anne Morrow.

For Floyd, her mother’s archive resonated with personal significance. It also formed the basis of her 2013–14 series of screenprints, Ripple, first presented in early 2014 in the solo exhibition Emily Floyd: Far Rainbow, at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. In these striking graphic works, Floyd superimposed colourful geometric forms over reproductions of key documents from her mother’s archive, such as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child,11 The Declaration of the Rights of the Child is an international document promoting child rights. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1959. and excerpts from Ripple, such as announcements for gatherings. Many of the Ripple pages featured Featherston’s graphic design. As Floyd has stated, ‘I wanted to represent this material for a contemporary art audience because of its personal significance, but also because feminist struggles of that time remain current’.12 Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

Floyd used archival material again in her Solve Your Personal Problems Socially series of screenprints, the first of three works commissioned by the NGV in 2014. Similar in form and intent to Ripple, they used archival text as a departure point, this time from the collection of Melbourne social and political activist Ruth Crow AM. Crow and her husband Maurie resourced several generations of urban campaigners during their fifty years of political and social activism. They considered their archive of printed material and working papers (now held in the Special Collections room of Victoria University Library, Melbourne) as tools for learning, or a ‘Living Library’.13 ibid. Growing up in Melbourne, Floyd had participated in children’s workshops designed by Crow that aimed to foster collective action and a sense of common purpose. For Floyd, the documents in the Crow collection possessed a ‘particular graphic intensity and personal resonance, encapsulating local histories of feminism, childcare, unionism and neighbourhood community development’.14 ibid.

Central to the Solve Your Personal Problems Socially series is a photograph of Ruth Crow giving a demonstration on urban design to Women of the West, a group from the Sunshine Children’s Cooperative, which was active during the 1980s in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Crow’s interests in communism, urban planning and community welfare are reflected in the manifestos, pamphlets and self-published documents seen on the table in the photograph. Floyd, in turn, used these same documents as source material for her prints, selecting those with specific references to left-wing movements in Australia and the Asia-Pacific, transforming them into compelling, abstracted, colour-saturated images. The title of the series (Solve Your Personal Problems Socially) further reinforces this emphasis on collective action. It was taken from a slogan devised by Crow for a principle she believed necessary for the ‘successful long-term functioning of collectives’.15 The phrase is drawn from the following text: ‘The successful long-term functioning of collectives depends on the conscious sharing of value judgements enabling participants to: fuse their personal needs with the hopes and ideas of others; solve your personal problems socially; begin to envisage the future; find common ground with participants in other organisations which have different immediate aims but share basic values’. Ruth Crow, ‘Building communities’, introduction to the Community Matters Conference, 15 Sep. 1989, published in Building Communities, self-published pamphlet, Collection of Ruth and Maurie Crow, Victoria University Library, Melbourne, CROW Box 21, 21/1, DOC.

THE DAWN
The ideas Floyd explored in Solve Your Personal Problems Socially also took root in The dawn, 2014, a monumental participatory sculpture that served as an arrival point for Floyd’s 2014 NGV exhibition, which had the same name. The title came from the nineteenth-century newspaper The Dawn: A Journal for Australian Women. Established in Sydney in 1888 by the poet and suffragette Louisa Lawson,16 Louisa Lawson’s pen name was Dora Falconer. She is also remembered as the mother of renowned writer Henry Lawson. The Dawn was one of the earliest examples of feminist publishing in Australia, and was edited, published and printed by women, for women. It’s self-proclaimed role was to be a ‘phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood’.17 The Australian Women’s Archives Project, ‘The Dawn: a journal for Australian women (1888–1905)’, 12 Dec. 2003, The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0641b.htm, accessed 17 Oct. 2019. Lawson owned and managed both the newspaper and its printing press, and employed an all-female staff of editors and printers. Floyd became aware of the journal following its digitisation by the National Library of Australia in 2012 and felt compelled to bring its history to light.18 A campaign to make The Dawn journal accessible online was launched by open source campaigner Donna Benjamin in 2011. Her campaign raised sufficient funds to enable the digital version to become available on International Women’s Day 2012. See Monique Ross, ‘New dawn for historic suffragette journal’, ABC News, 9 Mar. 2012, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-03-08/new-dawn-for-historic-suffragette-journal/3876066, accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

The dawn continues a series of large-scale public sculptures by the artist – beginning in 2012 with This space will always be open (commissioned for the Ian Potter Sculpture Court at Monash University) – that function as spaces for enquiry and social encounter.19 Others include Field libraries, 2015, and Labour garden, 2015, which was commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. It also unites her enduring interests in community, feminism, activism, the printed word, open access and public art. Simultaneously a meeting place and an archive, The dawn comprises large, brightly coloured circular forms that act as both seating and shelving, creating a convivial environment for visitors to rest in while they read the manifestos and left-wing texts arranged on the sculpture’s shelves.20 Floyd sourced the texts from Melbourne’s New International Bookshop at Victorian Trades Hall.

The dawn responds to the idea of the ‘living library’ advocated by the Crows. In art-historical terms, its scale and circular geometries place it within a lineage of modernist sculpture by women artists who have formed important points of reference for Floyd, including the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth, American artist Nancy Holt and Australian sculptor Inge King. Further references for The dawn were Floyd’s interest in adventure playgrounds and recollections from childhood of Peter Corlett’s Tarax play sculpture, 1969 (then situated in the gardens of the NGV, now on long-term loan to McClelland Sculpture Park). In its function as a repository of ideas, The dawn can also be seen in light of the practices of other contemporary artists working with archives, such as American artist Martha Rosler, whose personal library of more than 7000 books toured public institutions throughout North America and Europe between 2005 and 2009 as the exhibition Martha Rosler Library.21 See e-flux, Martha Rosler Library, http://projects.e-flux.com/library, accessed 12 Aug. 2019.

WORD FARM
Floyd’s shared interest with Mary Featherston in public engagement, community and pedagogy, earlier explored in Ripple, led to Floyd and Featherston collaborating on the participatory children’s installation Word farm, installed as part of The Dawn exhibition in 2014. The project included a tactile installation of individual letters of the alphabet for children to arrange and play with in an exploratory way, echoing the strategies of text-based works Floyd had made earlier in her career.22 Examples include It’s because I talk too much that I do nothing, 2002 (Private collection, Melbourne); A strategy to infiltrate the homes of the bourgeoisie, 2005 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne); The outsider, 2005 (Lyon Collection, Melbourne). Featherston had previously designed spaces in schools that were inspired by the alternative education philosophy Reggio Emilia, which promotes self-directed, experiential learning – concepts that align with Featherston’s pedagogical philosophies. Floyd, meanwhile, viewed the spatial arrangements found in learning environments as a form of ‘expanded sculpture’.23 Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

Floyd and Featherston worked with children from Princes Hill Primary School in Melbourne to develop Word farm, utilising a design process based on careful observation, documentation and feedback from the students. During the research process, children suggested that their parents would need somewhere to sit while they played. With this in mind, Featherston designed a modular seating arrangement that is both a minimalist sculpture and an agora, or gathering space.24 Emily Floyd and Mary Featherston, Word farm project proposal, 2014. Featherston’s open, semicircular seating design framed Floyd’s activity (the tactile letters of the alphabet) and turned Word farm into a sociable arena as well as a space for public educational programs throughout the exhibition. Drawing on their common personal connection to the legacy of Ripple and the socially oriented group activities they both participated in during the 1970s and 1980s, Floyd and Featherston created an installation that invited open-ended engagement for adults and the boundless potential of free play for children.

Steeped in local, lived experiences, Emily Floyd’s take on history unites the personal and the political. Her radical libraries, compelling graphics and pedagogical projects transform feminist archival materials into productive tools for the here and now, allowing us to learn from the achievements of successive generations of women that might otherwise be forgotten.

Notes

1

Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

2

Lucy Lippard was sponsored by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney to deliver the ‘Power Lecture’ in major Australian cities in 1975.

3

The Women’s Arts Movement was established in Adelaide in 1976 by artist Margaret Dodd. Significant early members included the curator Julie Ewington, and artist and theorist Anne Marsh. See http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1034b.htm, accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

4

The Women’s Art Register was established in Melbourne in 1975 by artists Lesley Dumbrell and Erica McGilchrist, and curators Kiffy Rubbo and Meredith Rogers at the University of Melbourne’s Ewing and George Paton Galleries. Described as a ‘living archive of women’s art practice (cis, non-binary and trans inclusive)’, it is one of only two surviving registers of its kind. It is now housed at the Richmond Library in Melbourne and is accessible online: http://www.womensartregister.org, accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

5

LIP was authored and published by a collective that included artists Elizabeth Gower, Isabel Davies and Erica McGilchrist, and curators and art historians Janine Burke, Ann Stephen and Suzanne Davies. It was published from 1976 to 1984.

6

See Contemporary Art and Feminism, https://contemporaryartandfeminism.com, accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

7

Vivian Ziherl (ed.), The Lip Anthology: An Australian Feminist Arts Journal 1976–1984, Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2013.

8

Sunday School (Kelly Doley and Diana Smith), ‘Feminist Futures: The Lucy R. Lippard Lecture’, 26 July 2015, Artspace, Sydney 2015.

9

Prominent philosopher and social theorist Ágnes Heller was a core member of the Budapest School. Along with other members of the School, she chose to live in exile in Australia between 1977 and 1986 due to political persecution. She lived in Melbourne and lectured at La Trobe University, later relocating to New York City, where she lectured for more than twenty-five years at the New School for Social Research. Heller was the subject of Emily Floyd’s solo exhibition Anti-Totalitarian Vectors, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 13 July – 19 August 2019. See http://annaschwartzgallery.com/exhibitions/anti-totalitarian-vectors, accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

10

Other members included Eva Cox, Ruth Crow, Winsome McCaughey, Sue Morris and Anne Morrow.

11

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child is an international document promoting child rights. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1959.

12

Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

13

ibid.

14

ibid.

15

The phrase is drawn from the following text: ‘The successful long-term functioning of collectives depends on the conscious sharing of value judgements enabling participants to: fuse their personal needs with the hopes and ideas of others; solve your personal problems socially; begin to envisage the future; find common ground with participants in other organisations which have different immediate aims but share basic values’. Ruth Crow, ‘Building communities’, introduction to the Community Matters Conference, 15 Sep. 1989, published in Building Communities, self-published pamphlet, Collection of Ruth and Maurie Crow, Victoria University Library, Melbourne, CROW Box 21, 21/1, DOC.

16

Louisa Lawson’s pen name was Dora Falconer. She is also remembered as the mother of renowned writer Henry Lawson.

17

The Australian Women’s Archives Project, ‘The Dawn: a journal for Australian women (1888–1905)’, 12 Dec. 2003, The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0641b.htm, accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

18

A campaign to make The Dawn journal accessible online was launched by open source campaigner Donna Benjamin in 2011. Her campaign raised sufficient funds to enable the digital version to become available on International Women’s Day 2012. See Monique Ross, ‘New dawn for historic suffragette journal’, ABC News, 9 Mar. 2012, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-03-08/new-dawn-for-historic-suffragette-journal/3876066, accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

19

Others include Field libraries, 2015, and Labour garden, 2015, which was commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor.

20

Floyd sourced the texts from Melbourne’s New International Bookshop at Victorian Trades Hall.

21

See e-flux, Martha Rosler Library, http://projects.e-flux.com/library, accessed 12 Aug. 2019.

22

Examples include It’s because I talk too much that I do nothing, 2002 (Private collection, Melbourne); A strategy to infiltrate the homes of the bourgeoisie, 2005 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne); The outsider, 2005 (Lyon Collection, Melbourne).

23

Emily Floyd, email to Jane Devery, 26 June 2014.

24

Emily Floyd and Mary Featherston, Word farm project proposal, 2014.