in conversation with Chin-Jie Melodie Liu
I met with Canberra based artist Saskia Haalebos on a sunny morning at her last group show, The Unsolicited Proposals Unit, in the new Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS) space beside Lake Burley Griffin.1 Both graduates of the Printmedia & Drawing workshop at the ANU School of Art & Design, we hit it off right away, often drifting into deeper conversations surrounding our practices during the interview. This edited interview however, focuses on the ways in which Haalebos approaches collaboration in her practice, and touches on the key issues that influence her work.
What are the burning, contemporary questions that drive your arts practice?
The themes that I always seem to gravitate towards are empathy and egalitarianism [because] the world needs more kindness. We can all do well to ask more questions and try to understand things from other people’s perspective and get outside of our heads … I don’t believe in anyone or anything being more important than anyone or anything else. I believe that everything should be treated with respect.
There is value in ideas too. We need to get off our devices and give ourselves and our brains a chance to rest and daydream. That’s where innovation, solutions, creativity and mental health lives.
How important is it to translate your struggles with dyslexia to the wider
Presenting neurodiversity is really important for myself to feel accepted. Doing it also gives me an opportunity to reflect and grow, and gives the audience a chance to engage and learn about neurodiversity. Dyslexia has always been described as a disability, a “learning disorder”. [But] language has a profound effect on everyone. Language can really oppress.
Dyslexia has always been described as a disability, a “learning disorder”. [But] language has a profound effect on everyone. Language can really oppress.
It’s important to say to people, “I don’t feel like I have a disability; I don’t feel like I have a disorder”, and give them a chance to think in a different way, and thus hopefully allow for more empathy, perspective, as more questions are asked.
Threshold (2019) was this kind of work.2 There were different shapes arranged on the wall that looked like a sentence. People could get to it and they reach different thresholds where they go “I wonder if there’s a deeper meaning to this” or they go “that’s an abstract work” and walk away.
David Broker, the [exhibition] curator, introduced my work to a group of teachers. He explained to them how I view dyslexia and the language surrounding how we talk about disorders. They went away thinking about ways to treat their students differently; how language can be oppressive but also [how it can be an] opportunity, and the importance of choosing words carefully.
How does the built environment of Canberra and its natural landscape impact your work?
What I love about Canberra, Ngunnawal Country, is the space—the quietness, the fresh air and the colours. The blues of the Brindabella mountains that surround the whole Canberra valley and encompass us makes me feel at rest here … I need space and quietness. When I go to Sydney, it’s exciting for a day or two. But the noise, the concrete, and the smell gets overstimulating … so Canberra is perfect for me.
What do you imagine and dream Canberra to be?
Canberra is complex—it’s difficult, it’s heartbreaking, it’s exciting, it’s contradictory.
Canberra is complex—it’s difficult, it’s heartbreaking, it’s exciting, it’s contradictory. The history is complex; even down to the lake that is not real and [that] flooded indigenous artefacts … that in itself is really heartbreaking. [However,] it’s a privilege to be living in Ngunnawal [and] Ngambri Country. It’s beautiful. I really love it here.
Since you have not been to Brasilia before, what do you dream, imagine, or know Brasilia to be?
I imagine it to be similar to Canberra. It’s complex because it is a seat of government. There’s this national versus local conflict that Canberra has too, including the tension of poverty versus privilege.
To be honest, I don’t know that much about Brasilia. All I really know about their government is what I get from the news, which is always through some sort of lens and filter. What I do see is that their [current] government, much like ours actually, does not align with my values.
I know that there are people in Brasilia who are like me who do not agree or are heartbroken by some of the decisions that our governments make on our behalf and it can be really overwhelming and frustrating. I can see similarities, but then again, I have to keep in mind that I don’t know anything from there except for what I am fed [through the media].
You started your online newsletter, Irregulart, in 2019. What has the response been like and how has it changed since the pandemic?
The response has always been really lovely. People are always kind and with every issue, someone—at least one person—will email me back. So it’s really encouraging and very generous.
The newsletter is a different communication channel, obviously, [compared] to Instagram. Instagram’s short, sharp, image[-based platform] is how some people prefer to get their information; [while] the newsletter is for people who prefer to get their information in their own time, and [it’s] a bit more in-depth. The crossover between Instagram and the newsletter gives people the control and decision on how they want to read the news.
Sometimes it feels like I’m just talking about myself which is hugely uncomfortable. I hate being the centre of attention but this is the way I build my community and find creatives, and also promote other creatives. It’s important for people to have a range of different ways to access information in their own time and [only] when and if they want to.
I remember seeing your work at the ANU School of Art & Design Graduating Exhibition in 2017. There have been some changes to the mediums you work in, with your experimentations in performance and digital art. Would you like to return to print?
For me it’s themes that run through my practice—like miscommunication or communication challenges, melancholy or humour. Whatever the idea is informs the medium rather than just sticking to one . So there’s no through-line with how my work looks; it’s more about how my work feels.
I love printmaking. I love monoprints above all of the print [processes] because it’s so immediate: you have to give over some of the output to the process. There’s all that kind of incidental mark making that you cannot control, which is great. It’s very egalitarian … anyone can do it at home. You don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t need lots of money—it’s just art for everyone.
I will be returning back to printmaking this year. I am making an animation out of probably 2000 monoprints with one of my collaboration teams, ITA (Image. Text. Audio). My friend Jane [Rawson] has already written her part, and Andy Maurer from Fever Dream Archive has also written a soundscape—I just need to do the animation.
You work with many of your collaborators more than once, including Nicci Haynes and Caren Florence. How do these projects come about? To what extent do you adapt your practice to the people you collaborate with?
I collaborate with people who I’ve known for a really long time so for me it’s about trust. People I know, whose works I find really fascinating with ideas, interests or values that align [with mine]. I need to [work with someone I] trust because you’re quite vulnerable in a collaborative situation.
You need to feel comfortable putting forward ideas, and failing, taking risks, and know that these people love you and that they are also willing to be vulnerable and are excited about creating with you.
It comes down to the themes [too]. With the You Are Here performance, Dark Mutter (2019), Nicci Haynes was already part of the Cahoots program for the year and had been working with the dancer, Debora di Centa, and she felt like it could do with an audio element. And I’ve worked with audio before because I used to be a musician. Nicci and I trust one another and work across similar themes. Sometimes I feel like Nicci and I are in a way a bit like an old-married couple where we don’t have to talk a lot and we finish each other’s sentences or we make a noise and a nod and completely understand what the other person is talking about.
I’ve collaborated with other people before [where] I was a bit of a yes-person because I thought I’m not going to get another opportunity: “I’ve waited so long to go to art school, I really need to say ‘yes’ to everything.” And then [the desperation] comes out in the work—in the end, my part in that kind of collaboration wasn’t that great. [But] you learn from that—only say ‘yes’ to what aligns with your values and what you want to do with your practice.
[Yes,] I’ve also learnt to not be afraid to ask for help, especially when you’re doing everything yourself.
Throughout art history there’ve been studio assistants, and I’ve been a studio assistant for Raquel Ormella. It’s a privilege to help and be involved in someone else’s practice and ideas and seeing their work on the walls. You don’t have to do everything yourself.
That’s also the more unseen aspects of collaboration —
Yes, the collaboration is important and the output might be her work on the wall here, but the output for me is I’ve learnt this, I’ve made a great new friend, and it’s that experience. It’s what you learn along the way and that’s invaluable.
What was it like working with the Rizzeria Print Collective on EXTRA!EXTRA! (2019) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)? Were there any restrictions working with such a big institution?
Caren Florance was invited to be part of the project and they asked her to bring someone. It wasn’t restrictive because Rizzeria and its Editor-in-chief, Lucas Ihlein, already negotiated all of that with the institution.
We had about an hour to look at the exhibition and produce the newspaper pages in a couple of hours, so it was thrilling to not have time to second-guess yourself.
Caren and I walked through and we noticed things that spoke to us and you had to run with your gut feeling. There’s that trust again with the two of us, knowing we had similar kinds of values. So what came out of that was raw.
I’m really happy with the ideas that came up in the time constraints that we had because you just had to blast through and do it in a gallery setting too where there’s people wandering through and wondering what you’re doing. It’s exciting and terrifying to put yourself out there and to be vulnerable and be true to yourself.
It’s exciting and terrifying to put yourself out there and to be vulnerable and be true to yourself.
I visited the AGNSW when one of the Rizzeria workshops were running, and I remember thinking that it was such a good idea! The Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art previously did a similar print space on the ground floor, that also engaged with the community, which goes back to what you said about print being accessible and for the community.
What was your interaction with the public like at the AGNSW?
We had a little bit of interaction with the public. We had to wear labels and go through the back which in itself was mind blowing, like “Oh my god! I’m going through the backdoor of the AGNSW!” Little ratbag from west Belconnen, [I] never would have dreamed so that was thrilling, absolutely thrilling. [As] we were wandering through scribbling notes people would mistake you for staff, [and ask,] “Do you know how to get to this bit?” “No. But let’s try together!”
How did the public interaction differ from your collaborations with Nicci?
Collaboration is usually not about the output. It’s about the time and the process leading up to when we have to show something—like [when I hung] out with Nicci for 12 months in her Australian National Capital Artists (ANCA) studio and played around with different things and seeing what comes out of that. The outputs for me personally from all of the collaborations have always been about observing [the audience] never about interacting [with] people.
How has your practice changed with 2020 being such an uncertain and challenging year?
COVID[-19] was really heartbreaking and overwhelming. Many people obviously had it worse off than me, and we were pretty sheltered from it in the ACT. My studio was [and is] a spare room in my house and my natural habitat is being solitary, at home. I’m not really much of a socialite, I get drained easily, so I prefer spending lots of time by myself.
It was really great to have an excuse not to go out. It took the pressure off me trying to not please others, [and having] that time for myself and allowing myself to not do anything. There was a deceleration as well. It was a reset, remembering what’s important and who’s important and persevering through it.
Did you find that the themes of your works changed in response to the past year?
Yes and no. I think even coming out of art school only a couple of years ago [took some time to adjust], because the school had all that great access to the workshops and the equipment and a community of raw energy and ideas. It was challenging to then not have access to all that.
The themes [I work with] are still in my work but perhaps in different mediums, sizes or even in a more [pared] back way. Sometimes … a simple idea, realised well or just stripped back can cut through a lot better.
Exactly, I was quite disappointed when I couldn’t work in the studios last year and my Honours thesis took a completely different turn, but it all worked out fine. It worked out better than having to think about the printing process, because I went back to —
Back to basics! Back to the drawings and the materials, it’s about…looking at the limitations of the situation, but also the opportunities of the situation and the mindset. Are you looking at it like “this is a tragedy” or are you looking at it as “oh okay so that means I can’t do that”. Like you said, you might get to somewhere that you wouldn’t have thought of and it actually works out for the better.
All illustrations (2021) were drawn digitally by the author, Chin-Jie Melodie Liu.
1 This interview took place at CCAS on the 27th of February 2021 from 11.30 am to 1.00 pm.
2 Threshold (2019) was made for the BLAZE THIRTEEN (2019) exhibition at CCAS.