Destiny Deacon & Virginia Fraser

The exhibition ‘Destiny’, at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), surveys an impactful body of work by Australian artist and activist Destiny Deacon. Included in the show are multimedia works made collaboratively with Erin Hefferon, Michael Riley, Lisa Bellear and Virginia Fraser. Rose Vickers talks with Deacon and Fraser about the boundaries and definitional challenges of their ongoing collaborative practice.

Destiny, let’s begin with your upcoming exhibition at the NGV.
D: This is my first survey at a state art gallery and the biggest show I’ve had in Melbourne. Even though I’ve been around for years and live in Melbourne I’ve mostly shown interstate, especially Sydney, and overseas, so it’s been exciting to see a couple of my works blown up huge on billboards in Flinders Street.

I had a previous survey show, ‘Walk and don’t look blak’, that travelled between 2004 and 2006. It started at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, went to the Tjibaou Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia (one of my great great grandmothers came from Lifou in New Caledonia), to Wellington, NZ, the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo, and the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne.

Virginia and Destiny, you’ve collaborated since the 1990s, having had separate art practices prior.
D: I’m a teacher by trade and I’ve taught all over the place – at a couple of the roughest state high schools in Australia, I’ve been a trainer for the Commonwealth Public Service teaching people how to work, taught in Aboriginal community schools, and tutored in Australian writing and cultural production at Melbourne University. Since becoming a full-time artist I’ve given lots of workshops and talks, so I’m still teaching. I already knew Virginia when I decided to take photos.

V: When we met, I was an artist, among other activities and jobs, using photography and small gauge film, and some performance. Destiny was a teacher and broadcaster.

What brought you together as artists and creative practitioners?
D: It just happened. Virginia helped me with this and that.

V: Destiny and I were already friends when people she knew – the late Lisa Bellear, Kim Kruger and Maree Clarke – did a photography workshop with the late Viva Gibb. Destiny had the idea of photographing an imposing but heavily graffitied boulder formation known as the Sisters Rocks near Stawell that we’d seen on the way to and from a funeral in the Western District. We made a trip back there, she took pictures with my old Pentax camera using 35mm black and white film and developed it in a terrible little darkroom in my laundry. I showed her how to use the ‘lotions and potions’ (her term) and the enlarger and left her to it. Destiny produced her first prints there, the series Koori Rocks, Gub Words (1990). Then, she said, something tapped her on the shoulder in the dark of the darkroom and that was that. 

From the start I was helpful; and at first merely helpful – driving, lending equipment, finding printers, being interested – and I wrote about her several times. Then I started to get more involved: making and finding props and sets for her staged photos, helping to set up the scenes, designing installations of her collected objects and so on.

Do you still maintain separate art practices?
V: Yes. But it’s probably not as clear cut as that. Destiny’s core practice – the photos – is bigger, more visible, more recognisable and more single-minded than mine; or perhaps directional is a better word. I have contributed props, sets, objects, materials and sometimes ideas to many of the photos, but they are her pictures.

D: About my Blak life.

V: My practice (the things I do on my own or sometimes with other collaborators) is more loosely formed; a conjunction of playing with materials, a thought, an opportunity. The things that happen when you work with other people interest me: the surprises, the changes to your own ideas.

What are the challenges that you are currently facing as collaborators?
V: There has always been a lot of confusion about our jointly attributed work. There’s a strong western cultural belief that the artist is solo (a hermetically sealed individual), so that many people clearly have problems with any collaborators who don’t seem to form a new stable entity; in effect an unconventionally constituted solo artist. That’s not really us. Destiny and I often work together, but not always, and not always in the same way. Each of us has produced work with other people and while I’ve put a fair bit into Destiny’s photos, she’s lent herself to a couple of my projects too.

The idea that all art is collaborative in the schema of history and theory – even when artists are working by themselves. The most self-taught practices are received and interpreted within a web of other practices, so in both the making and interpretation of art there are collaborative elements.
D: I come up with an idea and try to do it. I don’t think about what other people have done, but you absorb things all the time.

V: Everything is collaborative in the way you mention; a kind of historical one-way street. Also, virtually every enterprise we undertake in our contemporary lives, whether we’re artists or not, involves other people at some stage. Collaboration, which just means working together, is a very broad field. It can be voluntary or forced, paid or not; and even if unequal, uneven, undemocratic or unrecognised, it’s still collaboration. There’s operational convenience in having only one author for anything, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

How does that play out in the political nature of your practice, which often takes up experiences and representations of Indigeneity?
D: I’ve been around Indigenous politics since I was little, going to meetings and marches and demonstrations with Mum. Me and my family and friends are all involved in Indigenous politics in some way. I majored in Politics at university, I read and watch screen news about Australian and international politics. It creeps in everywhere into my work, sometimes in obvious ways, but it’s always part of the background. Politics is about power and that’s part of my work.

V: Well Destiny’s always Blak, even when she’s working with me, and I’m not even when I’m working with her. The work we do together still contains her thoughts as well as mine in a way that satisfies us both. Her Blakness and my not-Blakness aren’t solid objects. They’re made up of experiences in contexts. A lot of those experiences, if not the same, are homologous. We’re not heading off in completely different directions.

What place does research have in your combined practice?
V: We haven’t specifically researched projects except in a few cases; for instance, we were involved in an exhibition across two galleries in Western Sydney celebrating fifty years of ABC. Each artist got access to the archive; we searched for Aboriginal subjects made before the 1967 referendum and noticed various recurring themes. In the end we focused on two of them: Indigenous children being inducted into white society through singing and chanting, and white people appropriating blackness. But we both read a lot, not necessarily the same things, and watch TV of various sorts – news, films, documentaries, drama; this and that. You could say that your whole life is a form of research. 

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 51, 2020

23 Nov 2020 – 14 Feb 2021
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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