Wendy Woodson Interview


Wendy Woodson: Hi, my name is Wendy Woodson. I've been asked by the Immigration Museum to answer a few questions about the installation that I created for the museum, which is currently on exhibit until January 2012, called Belonging: Reflections on Place.

In terms of describing my work, that's a tough one. I've worked as a choreographer, a director, a writer, and video artist over the past 40 years. I've created, I think, about 100 different works for stage and screen.

Lots of different experiments in content in each one of those works, but I guess if I were to try and find something essential that's in all of them, it would be in the broadest sense questions of identity. Who we are? Where we belong? How we relate to one another? Especially the discrepancies or the similarities depending on our own internal sense of self, our personal sense of self, and our external or performance of self with others.

So how do these different agendas create complex interactions and possibilities? And I think at the center of these concerns has always been an interest in questions of belonging. Where do we belong? Where do we not belong? Who belongs where and why, while others are excluded from a certain place? How do different places make us behave? What kinds of behaviors do different places encourage or discourage in us?

So I think that those kinds of issues have always been central to all of my work. And the installation is an extension of those into some new territories, I guess.

I mainly have worked in fiction. And over the past five or six years, I've been more and more interested in working in more of documentary forms.

In 2006, I went to Melbourne for the first time as a Fulbright Scholar and was an artist in residence at Victorian College of the Arts and also worked on a project at Monash, actually the first version of the installation project.

I became interested in the idea of immigration and talking with people who are immigrants and refugees currently living in Australia because those were the people that I was meeting. I was very impressed with how multicultural Melbourne was. And almost all the people that I was meeting were not originally from Australia.

So I started this project during 2007. I did the first version of it as part of an installation for an international conference on health and mobility in Southeast Asia. And became very interested in the idea of combining conversations with people, very tightly framed, almost as if I were talking to a body in space. And the surrounding area on all the surrounding walls would be projections of travel, migration, displacement, landscapes that were passing by.

So that prototype that I began to develop in the first version, we did several versions in the United States at art galleries and now, it's in its final version, or I don't know if it's final, but it's in its current version in Melbourne.

The participants who are in the exhibit I met in many different ways. During the three or four times I've been in Australia, I've met all different kinds of people. I would say broadly, many people in the academic community, and many people who are artists. So clearly, I relied on these people to help me find additional people to interview.

So and also I met many people by chance. One example being, when I was traveling in Tasmania, I met a gentleman who was the proprietor of a motel that I was staying in in Swansea. And we just got to chatting. And I found out he was from Jerusalem, a Palestinian who had left Jerusalem and was now living in Tasmania. And I just asked him if he would be willing to speak, and he generously agreed.

So there were quite a few people that I met that way. And the thing that I truly enjoyed about working on this project was that it kind of organically created a kind of neighborhood, if you will, that became the project. But it was sort of the neighborhood that I was living in when I was in Melbourne.

I got to know these people extremely well. I collected probably about 45 hours of interview footage that I edited down to about nine hours that would be put on these different [? plinths. So it made me a very attentive listener, which is something I really appreciated.

In addition, I learned many new things about places that I thought I knew something about. But, in fact, I didn't know about them through the voices of people who actually lived there or who came from those places. So that was extremely interesting, and I learned a great deal through talking with these people.

Another question that I've been asked is what is my reasoning behind including the different media in the installation? And relative to that is what is the difference between, in my view, an installation and an exhibition?

So I guess the first thing is that I wanted to create, I think I mentioned this earlier, an immersive environment, where one is listening to people or listening to parts, fragments of stories from real individuals. And that they would hopefully travel from place to place where these individuals would be appearing.

And, in addition, that the environment where these people were was constantly moving. And so that the viewer has a sense of motion in the space that we're listening, but we are also having the sensation of moving or being moved in the space. That we are also traveling.

And the third element, the sound score that Myles Mumford created for this version of the exhibit, is very important in terms of, again, an immersive experience.

One thing I loved in Melbourne was any time, day or night, in the streets there are so many sounds of people, of public transport, of fragments of music. So any time that I would walk down the street, I kept getting transported from place to place or from culture to culture. And that's something that I really loved in Melbourne. It brought up, it evoked all these sounds evoked so many different emotions and memories for me.

I've forgot to mention that part of my interest in belonging is that for most of my life, until I was an adult, I moved around every two years both in the United States and in other countries. So I never had a really strong sense of belonging to one place. So sound evokes many, many associations for me, and I think for many people, about place and memory of place.

So I wanted all these three different media to interact, to create both an active space for the viewer and also a reflective space. And it was a big challenge to try and get these different lines, if you will, to get the right balance.

And I was quite happy with the final product. In so far as, I feel it's a balanced space where we can listen to the people. We can also get a sense of movement within us and around us. And the sound helps to evoke other places and times.

I think that this idea of a more immersive space for the viewer, where we're participating more actively rather than standing back and viewing, is in my mind, the difference between an installation and an exhibition.

In the Belonging installation, there's no beginning or end, or middle or end. There's no one way to travel through it. That was very important to me, that each viewer is going to have a different experience of that space.

And I think an installation, my idea of an installation anyway I think, encourages more of that nonlinear or accidental or individual journey through the space.

I think working on a piece like this, or working on any piece of art, frankly for me, is all about helping me, and hopefully others, notice more about the places that we live in. And also a project like this that documents or that encourages conversations with real people, it's a way for students to really get to know people either in their families or neighbors in the places, in the communities that they live in to have a stronger connection to these communities.

And also in terms of being on the street every day with a camera, trying to capture the motion, the sounds, the sensations in that environment, I feel that, again, it helps each one of us be a better observer and participant in that place, and I think, frankly, encourage a much stronger connection to that place. Because once I really observe a place, and I've watched the sunset in that particular location, I know what kinds of movement patterns come through that space at that time, my love for that place is strengthened, my attachment to it, my appreciation of it.

So I would hope that projects of this nature would give students a much stronger connection to places that they actually inhabit.

About this Video

Belonging: Reflections on Place artist Wendy Woodson talks about the ideas and process behind her installation.
Length: 12:36