More politely than shaking hands, single channel video work with audio, drawing, a4 text, institutional trolley, 2015.
‘While Wading’ was written by Therese Keogh to accompany ‘More politely than shaking hands’.
The Sea of Cortez sits between the Baja Californian Peninsula and mainland Mexico. In an unusual display of geographical symmetry, land and sea are intertwined. The Peninsula reaches south into the Pacific Ocean, while the Sea moves north, dissecting the two landmasses. On closer inspection they appear to revolve around one another; dancing. In this part of the world the relationship between land and water offers a unique balance in the power play between the known and the unknown. The land attempts to envelop the water, and the water swirls around the land searching for a way in. Perhaps the dance is more of a battle, meeting in a littoral hub, unable to draw a clear border. As weather patterns change, and the water surges with the moon, the shore becomes a no-man’s-land. It is barren in its belonging to neither territory, and despite this holds one of the richest areas of biodiversity. Terra Incognita and Mare Incognitum meet at the shoreline to create a space in so constant a motion that it barely exists. It has a thickness that is uncompromising and ungraspable at the same time. The shore defies the compulsion for mapping, allowing instead only for ambivalence. In response, the researcher desires nothing more than to become amphibious, while struggling with the impossibility of this goal. Water is the final frontier: the place where understanding floats around on mountains of human waste drifting along the currents. This plastic island never breaks down, so will never truly become a part of whichever ecosystem it collides with. Instead it rests, untethered and unplanned, waiting for a moment of clarity that is unlikely to surface.
Joined to the Sea of Cortez by a chain of water bodies that stretch across the globe is the Maribyrnong River; a tidal waterway, rising and falling throughout the day. If the breeze is blowing in the right direction you can smell the sea, as if the ocean is creeping inland. When the air flows the other way, the smell is equally fishy, but slightly more rancid, floating down from the recycling plant near the studios. The river supposes a linearity that is entirely an illusion, like the interchangeability between a trip and an expedition. It flows both ways, picking up sediment and dropping it in a new location. Or carrying it along until the sediment recolours the water and the river becomes a completely new body. Over time rubble builds up in areas, and wears away in others, changing the direction of the river ever so slightly. Bluestone lines the edge, shoring the earth and water at once, guaranteeing that their intermingling is kept to a minimum. Rubbish is scattered along the shoreline: some from upstream, some from down. A few starfish lie dead at the water’s edge. It’s hard to tell if they’ve washed up, been picked up by birds or clinged to the lines of people fishing. Perhaps they climbed out, attempting to escape the unknown.* Bleached in the sunshine, and dried in an overabundance of air. Their five crispy legs lead away from themselves; like points on a compass with an extra one for times when three dimensions just aren’t enough. The fifth leg hints at a potential for indecision.
* Standing on the shore I wonder if it matters how it died, or simply that it is dead. Less than a metre away a live starfish clings to a rock just beneath the water’s surface. Its colours bright, its skin soft, and its future as yet undefined. I wonder how long a starfish can live out of water. I wonder if it knows I’m here, looking down at it. Do starfish have eyes? Or in the absence of eyes perhaps its skin is so hypersensitive to its surroundings that it knows I’m here even without looking. Perhaps, regardless of their apparent inactiveness, starfish are beings of curiosity. Maybe it came out of the river simply to try to understand what it feels like to be dry, and what it’s like to exist without the pressure of water weighing down on you. Maybe – like the researcher – it longs to be amphibious, and its inevitable ruin is worth those few moments of experiencing what it’s like to reside on land.
by Zoe Theodore
In 1940, a boat carrying collaborators and confidants, novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts, travelled down the coast of California in trail of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Part scientific expedition, part leisurely adventure, the voyage soulfully searched for the reason behind why one man will compulsively write poetry, whilst the other will tiresomely examine organisms through a microscope. The pair justified their questionably gratuitous journey with the title “expedition” and “let it form itself” free from boundaries, limits and reservations. The result was a Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, a work that combined the companions’ respected intellectual products as one.
More Politely than Shaking Hands, an installation by Jacqui Shelton, as part of the ACCA’s 2015 Startups Program, adopts the same sentiment as Steinbeck and Ricketts’ voyage – the unapologetic acceptance of a futile floating between reading, mind mapping and conversations as a form of professional practice. The installation questions the preconceived binary of work and laziness by interrogating the capitalist notion of work. Shelton reformulates laziness as, not the antithesis of work, but instead a fertile space necessary for work. She explores the possibility of movement without direction, similarly to Ricketts and Steinbeck’s journey, meandering from place to place, conversation to conversation and thought to thought.
Interested in the “meandering unfixed position of art in our thoughts and conversations”[i] Shelton presents multiple narratives that contribute to a larger conversation about alternative realities – the land and the sea, the known and the unknown, the Sea of Cortez and the Maribyrnong, and work as opposed to laziness.More Politely than Shaking Hands presents us with two converging narratives both with multiple narrators. One narrative follows Shelton through her investigation into lazy gestures on the banks on the Maribyrnong accompanied by her confidant, Therese Keogh. Whilst also alluding to a paralleled journey down the coast of America with Ricketts and Steinbeck.
The installation includes an eight-minute long video that presents the text of the introduction of the Sea of Cortez over a continuous shot of a body of water’s shoreline. Influenced by the potential for ideas to shift from one person to another through conversations, Shelton explores the possibility of thoughts passing from one temporality to another as she presents Steinbeck and Ricketts narrative superimposed with the details of her own meandering journey – a MFA research candidature at Monash University. The narrative is also read aloud by a teleprompter, which enables the narrative to remain in virtual space and questions whether a physical journey has actually taken place. Shelton frames her journey as a process of meandering aimlessly through research as a resistance to both productivity and laziness but arguably still research. Included in the installation is also a text by Keogh, which declares the Sea of Cortez and the Maribyrnong are joined by “a chain of water bodies that stretch across the globe.”[ii]
An expedition or journey is predicated on a beginning, a general direction, stops along the way and an end. By framing her research project as a journey, Shelton remodels the project into something more solid – something with a beginning, middle and end. Through this reframing, Shelton fundamentally questions the structure of a postgraduate research degree and the potential benefits of an artistic practice framed a research project. The installation questions what can be taken from the journey and what is left behind, whilst continuously critiquing the underlying point of the journey.
Zoe Theodore is an emerging writer, producer and curator.
[i] Jacqui Shelton, What works best (each thing I do I rush through so I can do something else part two), 2014.
[ii] Therese Keogh, While Wading, 2015.