Birdlife by Francis Italiano

It was Perdy’s photograph of a stuffed owl with a dicky eye that hooked in poets Miles and Farrell…

birdlife cover

Text copyright © Francis Italiano. First published in the ArtSource Newsletter Text and art Autumn 2008 pp. 5-6 Reproduced with permission.

At the risk of stretching ornithological metaphors too far before we’ve even taken flight on the subject, it has to be said that there is something rather birdlike about visual artist Perdita (Perdy) Phillips and experimental writer Nyanda Smith as they discuss their current collaborative project, ‘Birdlife’.

In conversation, and in her practice, Perdy seems to hover momentarily, scrutinising subjects with her head cocked, before swooping in, swift and incisive. Meanwhile, Nyanda positively warbles with excitement about the “frisson between text and image” they are encountering in producing a limited edition published book combining poetry, prose and visual art.

The pair are collaborating with poets Graham Miles, in Perth, and Michael Farrell, in Melbourne, to develop text and artwork for the book around a conceptual theme of ‘birdlife’, drawing from their own interests and in response to each other’s contributions.

Largely inspired by Perdy’s conceptual focus on birds in her contemporary visual arts practice – her recent exhibitions include works in ‘Systems of Nature’ (Lawrence Wilson Gallery, UWA – 2007) and ‘Chart’ (John Curtin Gallery – 2006) with recent residencies at SymbioticA and the Banff Centre in Canada – the collaborators are keen to explore their different styles and artforms in a loose (bird) “call and response” process that moves beyond mere representation.

“The writers aren’t textually explaining my drawings and photographs, and I’m not illustrating their poetry… We’re actually trying to interact (with each other’s work) in an interpretive way,” explains Perdy. “There should be a sense that the work is all equal and it’s a kind of exchange – like a dialogue.”

Much of Perdy’s practice draws from science, which has seen her attracted to photographing “intriguing but macabre” stuffed birds in museums – respectfully aware of what she calls the “folly of science” in representing ‘life’ through taxidermy. It was Perdy’s photograph of a stuffed owl with a dicky eye that hooked in poets Miles and Farrell when first approached.

Nyanda suggests that in spite of their “wildly different” styles, each collaborator seems to have flown with the latent irony of Perdy’s work in exploring their own associations with ‘bird’ as metaphor, symbol or point of departure. She describes Farrell’s work as having a “punchy, contemporary urban feel with an emphasis on sound”, whereas Miles’ poetry reflects his classical studies in Latin and Greek, with a more lyrical feel. For her part, Nyanda has been experimenting with a stream-of- consciousness style of prose poetry based on interviews with an obsessive house renovator about his “nesting” process.

Perdy and Nyanda first worked together to produce a catalogue publication to accompany the ‘Strange Strolls’ exhibition curated by Perdy in 2005. ‘Strange Strolls’ brought together local and international visual artists and sound artists to do performative sound works which in turn prompted them to collaborate on a publication that sought to communicate live art practice through text and design. Nyanda describes the buzz of that first collaboration, “feeding off Perdy’s vision” and how it fitted with her desire to apply a poetic style to her considerable experience as a more formal writer about visual arts.

Perdy established Lethologica Press to publish the ‘Strange Strolls’ catalogue and designed an accompanying website, initially to aid distribution of the publication but also to create a “point of origin – a place of contact”. “It’s not just about legitimacy, but also about independence,” she explains about Lethologica, “so that it can also be a project space for different projects of different forms to be interfaced.”

The success of the ‘Strange Strolls’ collaboration inspired the pair to continue establishing Lethologica Press as a brand for high quality text and image publishing with the ‘Birdlife’ project. To this end they have welcomed ArtsWA’s newly implemented grants assisting WA publishing initiatives. These grants particularly recognise the limited opportunities for poets to get into print, and in this case could feasibly cover a print run of about 350 copies.

The four contributors to ‘Birdlife’ have already been developing the text and artwork collaboratively for over a year but Perdy acknowledges that “the beauty of this kind of grant is that none of us is actually in the position where we could get the results of this kind of collaboration out there ourselves. “Even so, while they admit this initiative has encouraged them, the artists believe their conceptual interest in the combination of text and image would have seen them naturally pursuing projects like ‘Birdlife’, regardless.

All four artists responded so well to each other’s input from the outset, says Nyanda, that “suddenly it was just happening” and the collaboration has continued to flow organically between them. A respect for each artist’s expertise in their own field has meant that they trust in each other’s judgement and have learnt to pull back on choices they might have made if it was a solo project. An additional practical dividend they acknowledge is the opportunity to promote WA artists to Melbourne audiences and vice-versa, as well as across artforms. For example, Perdy likes the idea that their work might be in reading rooms in Melbourne so that visitors looking for photography at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art might end up reading Nyanda’s prose poetry, and Nyanda enjoys the prospect of “stirring the pot a little” by giving visual arts aficionados in the reading room at PICA “a taste of some really great poetry”. (Evidently, both of them have been influenced by the foraging habits of the Bowerbirds that are central to Perdy’s current SymbioticA project.)

Unlike performing artists or musicians, most visual artists and poets work in isolation. So why collaborate on ‘Birdlife’? Perdy cocks her head one last time, before uttering “Complexity” as she takes flight from our meeting, and Nyanda chirpily concurs as she too flits away… Clearly, the project has wings.