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This is Barbara Cleveland, Brown Council This is Barbara Cleveland, Brown Council
photo Lucy Parakhina
When there’s heavy lifting to be done in the area of female empowerment, Brown Council are the go-to girls. Their work is multi-dimensional taking in everything from explorations in contemporary performance via video art to joke marathons.

As part of Performance Space’s Halls for Hire project last year, Brown Council celebrated the 90-year history of the Country Women’s Association by taking up the self-imposed challenge over four sleepless days of baking all 137 cakes from the CWA’s Jam Drops and Marble Cake recipe book. This is the dedication they now bring to bear on the task of reinstating a potentially forgotten female artist to her place in history. I caught up with the team in the midst of their four-month long international pilgrimage researching the life of the mysterious Barbara Cleveland “travelling to the cities where she lived and worked, exhuming her memory in an attempt to reinsert her into the history of performance art history.”

I came to Sydney in 1986 and missed Barbara Cleveland altogether. What sort of performance works did she create and what has attracted Brown Council to them?

Cleveland was one of the first Australian artists to integrate performance art practice and feminist thought. She was a hugely influential, mythological figure working from the mid-late 1970s up until her death in 1981. However what’s interesting is that there is no documentation of her performances in photographic or video form and almost nothing written about her.

Performance art, like many other conceptual practices of the 1960s and 1970s, developed within a particular socio-historic context that stressed, among other things, the ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object, so performances often weren’t documented in order to reflect this critique. We wondered whether this was due to the nature of the work—because performance is an ephemeral act which has historically resisted documentation or because of the lack of institutional interest in women’s work. So the fact that she was anti-documentation means she has been largely left out of the ‘canon’ of performance art in Australia. She became important to us as an early example of feminist thought in Australian culture and creative practice, almost as a test case as to how that’s been remembered or not remembered.

This is Barbara Cleveland, Brown Council This is Barbara Cleveland, Brown Council
photo Lucy Parakhina

You’ll be re-performing some of Barbara’s lectures as part of the Performance Space celebrations. Are they straight lectures or do they fit more into the lecture-performance format so popular in the 1980s that unleashed the creative talents of so many academics?

Cleveland’s performance lectures and instructional performances were discovered in an archive box in mid-2011, which is how we found out about her. The performance lectures focus on how we experience and understand time, memory and history and their relationship to the experience of performance. We couldn’t tell if they’d ever been performed or if they were just text based instructional performances. This is, of course, a problem as well—without documentation the work and the artist are forgotten and left out of the history books—like Cleveland.

Barbara Cleveland’s text raises so many of the key issues surrounding performance art now and whether it can be understood after the event through subsequent documentation and whether it can be reinterpreted, re-enacted or re-performed. It was really the discovery of these lectures and performances that spurred on the entire Barbara Cleveland project and the desire to insert her work and memory back into history. As Brown Council we re-perform these performance lectures to camera as a way of documenting her work and memorialising her words and so in effect we all become Barbara Cleveland.

Though I can’t find anything about Barbara in any of the important publications on performance art at the time you say her work outside Australia was also seminal. Where has retracing her steps taken you?

Like many Australian artists, Barbara Cleveland traveled overseas in the 1970s to engage with the European and American scenes. At present we are interested in her time spent in the UK and in particular the galleries and spaces where she performed in London, such as Gallery House, Whitechapel and ICA. Her performances throughout this time were not documented so little is known about the work she undertook. Retracing Barbara’s steps has led us to London, the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh and The Junction in Cambridge where we have been developing gestures of remembrance to her. One of these has been handing out T-shirts with the statement “REMEMBERING BARBARA CLEVELAND” printed on the back. The T-shirts enable people to enact their own form of remembrance and spread the name of Barbara Cleveland.

Performance Space, You’re History: Brown Council, This is Barbara Cleveland, Bay 19, Carriageworks, Sydney, 20 Nov-1 Dec, 10am-9pm

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 26

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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