On Being a Practitioner Unaligned with Institutions

Shelley Lasica, 'The Design Plot', 2018, Sutton Projects. Photography Jacqui Shelton

On Being a Practitioner Unaligned with Institutions

By Shelley Lasica

By speaking about the way I work, I seek to draw out some threads that have come up in the discussions with the TTDA. An appreciation of the varied trajectories and shapes of people’s professional lives is intrinsic to discussions regarding change in the structures that support and interact with those practices. The structures don’t define the lives, they support them. It is about time that the public/the funding bodies/the media acknowledge the real conditions and the complexity of our professional practice.

When I began my practice, I always conceived of it as being outside of various institutions, perhaps because the way that I began thinking about my interests and the type of work that I might make was always between things; practices, ideas, people and situations. Intrinsic to the making of work was the structure of building and presenting articulated through the context within which it became itself.

And indeed the becoming itself was very much part of the process of making. My background in dance is in dancing and choreography. My original teacher was Margaret Lasica, my mother, and various luminaries who taught in Australia both local and international,  including but not only, Christine Mearing, Ronnie Arnold, Eva Karczag, Dana Reitz, Sally Gardner and then overseas with many people especially members of Trisha Brown Company and Robert Dunn. My institutional tertiary education is in Art History from the University of Melbourne.

I saw myself as a choreographer from the age of around 16, and for me the making and performing were very much part of the project.. This was around 1977. As I began working and studying more with various people, it was clear that my colleagues who had studied mainly at the VCA were trained very differently from me, their expectations and abilities were different, and the hopes for professional trajectories were different. In my twenties, I had the idea that it was possible and maybe interesting to develop a practice, at least for a while, of making solo work. There were particular reasons for this to do with a dissatisfaction in my methods of transmitting information to the dancers with whom I was working, and a sense that it was important to simply spend an extended amount of time understanding more about what I was interested in through my body in addition to extended and varied research alone in a studio. I was lucky enough to have ready and stable access to studio space, and so that’s what I did over several years. I then realised that not only was the working by myself a useful research mode but also a quite particular performance mode. I proceeded to find ways of showing that solo work engaging with the cultural discourse at that time.

Interdependence is perhaps something to talk about, between individuals and organisations, practices and ideologies. I work with organisations and institutions, trying to find ways that are mutually satisfying and functioning. This is about an ecosystem, and through that I have tried to find ways that are mutually advantageous. In working within a complex system between institutions and practitioners in various media on an ongoing basis I established a process of developing ideas, systems and performances. This way of working is particularly appropriate and interesting for my endeavours. My work seems to exist in an interstice that until more recently (despite the long history of choreography and performance in relation to visual arts) was not something for which curators in museums or kunsthalle type institutions, nor programmers from theatres could imagine or find language and context. So there was a sort of oil and water thing going on, and I continue to seek some agency in this relationship. What that did open for me was the interest in actively making the context for the work as part of the making of the work.

I sought representation from a gallery, and was represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery for around 20 years. I have taught a little as a guest in post grad at VCA School of Dance, but not much; and more recently as a guest in the honours and PhD streams at MADA; undergraduate interior design at RMIT; sessionally at LGI and developed choreography programmes at Bus Projects.

The way I work was and is a choice and is very different from being a ‘sole-trader’ which is inherently something that is an identifier from the language of the market, governance, etc.

So the choice to not have a company, but to create ongoing informal relationships with people working through dance, visual art, music, costume, architecture, light, over many years is a positive one, and allows a capacity for the working process to be of a shape and duration defined by the necessities of a particular work.

I absolutely acknowledge the privilege that is the underlying condition allowing me in all sorts of ways to develop my career in this manner.

In tandem with that is the capacity for working this way, which is borne out of a long and complex investigation of various personal and more disciplined somatic practices. It is about the adherence to practice and the accumulation of that knowledge.

The recognition of the development of somatic knowledge through deep structural networks of understanding between the dancers and the audiences can be a template for how culture in all its dimensions functions. This is a somatic practice that can provide a structure for attention to our collective bodies in the context of our lived worlds.

In this particular moment in which practice and economy are ruptured, there is a shift in private and public attention offering the possibility to leverage structural change. It seems appropriate to propose an alternate structure for professional development both in terms of the life of a work and the professional shape of a practice over a career span. That the maintenance of a working life as an artist/choreographer is a practice that, outside of the structure of companies and teaching institutions is sustainable in and of itself. And that sustainability is not only economic but practical, recognisable and recognised.

The relationship between the value of what it is that I/we do and its financial reward are complex in this discussion. The expectation that it is possible to maintain a professional career as a practising artist is functionally unrealistic. That this situation is not clear and understood by all participants - practitioners, institutions, presenters, funding bodies, supporters and audience - is ridiculous. That the value of what we do is related to remuneration is unreasonable in this light and it is perhaps a potent time to recognise and examine these particular inconsistencies and deep opacities.

Somehow to think about an alternative matrix of value and one that is consistent with offering opportunity to a large diverse range of voices in training institutions, and professional opportunities.

Discussions about declaring the economic value of the arts, even the health benefits for the wider community are to be made, but not by me. I and my work can’t presume to benefit anyone. I, and my work are available to everyone. This is a further discussion and a complex cultural dialectic.

The article below by Audrey Schmidt speaks to the complications that arise about positioning and value/virtue signalling by artists and about art.


Payment for the rendering of a particular service - a performance - doesn’t acknowledge what the work is. To value experience and commitment to a practice the accumulation of working, thinking; making that happen over a period of time. This requires both the investment of time and money. These practices are many and varied and become activated through the many public realms.

This acknowledgement would require a shift in thinking to establish an equivalence in value of practice: that the choice to work predominantly outside the institutional frameworks is not a vertical pathway to becoming a company or part of a company, is not a situation of deficit but one of opportunity.. The establishment of a reasonable possibility of earning an income through the various aspects of practice - proper payment, professional employment opportunities, the establishment of UBI unilaterally not just in the arts sector.



Shelley Lasica

July/August 2020

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