Amanda Stewart: Faces, shifts, indices

the movement throughout the image
of body, whole, gathered and real.
begin. end . sense. 

like a likeness, a sign, the ritual,
repeat. To focus becomes the object
is disappearing.

It suffices. An Astronomy of power,
implicit, subtle, carnivorous,
bureaucracies serenade their untied shoelaces

not being able to
not being able to 

(Amanda Stewart, from "Icon", I/T)

In beginning my fossicky labours, my first desire was to visit Amanda Stewart. I wanted to ask her about her sense of Sydney, since we seem to occupy a similar orbit. She went to the same university that I did, twenty years before me, and studied in the same cultural studies node that I did (though she copped the guts of it and I caught the lingering whiffs). And like me, she has found herself working, making and thinking in collective arrangements that share an approach to method, rather than an essential identity. This means that she has been variously involved with sound artists, musicians, performers, film-makers, radio-makers, poets, critics, etc., and she has produced work that could be considered sound art, music, performance, film, radio, poetry (spoken, written, concrete) and criticism. She uses the word poetry to describe what she does, where poetry is a methodology. I mean methodology very literally: how things are done when things are done. For Stewart, experimenting broadly and socially with technologies of signification, including but not limited to language, is poetry: and this has come to include a good heft of work in lots of directions, alongside many technicians, poets and otherwise.

Stewart was sympathetic to my intuitions about Sydney, and the way the city seems to lose, or lose track of, its materials. She felt that there was something about Melbourne that supported a culture and ethos of documentation, whereas in Sydney there was a tendency to forget, or misplace, its emissions. I told her the slant of my project, emphasising that the recovery of materials need not be an exercise in nostalgia, it can be a process of construction, where new relations of arrangement support new methods for dealing with material in the first place. She obliged by digging through her bookshelves and talking through memories, relation to relation.

One thing that struck me during our conversation was the good glut of women publishing in the 70s and 80s: there was a queer feminist silk screen printing facility in Ultimo (apparently with a restaurant and disco attached! -- gonna try to find more on this in the coming weeks), and Stewart was involved in a number of print anthologies that included graphics, illustrations and photography, as well as prose, poetry and critical remarks, all or mostly by women. Feminist printing presses have quite a history in Sydney, particularly in contributing to suffragette campaigns following federation in 1901 (more on that in the next post!). Stewart told me that some of the women involved in the press collectives of the 70s and 80s were also active in campaigns around the accessibility of abortion clinics, rape crisis centres, women's counselling services and refuges. Other indie publishers included the anarchists associated with Jura Books, a shop-collective and lit-share hub. Apparently, the original Jura was next door to a Latin American hang-out on King Street, Newtown, and there were occasional improvised lectures on global anarchisms when the two crews converged on the footpath.

As well as print-jams, there were also rashes of collabo and solo efforts in film, radio, theatre, punk music, alt-crit theory sessions and work straddling a number of media at once, coming to include new tech gear and computer imaging. What's so interesting about multimedia conceits in analogue contexts is that the integration of technologies, objects and processes are so physical. The stack-up of tapes, reels, cartridges, plates, screens, etc., is enormous -- and entirely un-flatten-able, in the way that digital files are now. But the desire for multiformat materials, and an aesthetic that was already predicting digital interface was ripe in the 80s and 90s, so there's this fascinating period of art-making where analogue modes start prototyping the digital: poetry, recorded compositions and sound art, performance and graphic art that demonstrate nonlinear, multilayered and/or procedural elements.

I see this in Stewart's work particularly, which is vigilantly self-aware. As a poet, she deals with written and spoken languages, and she does not see writing as a record or transcript of speaking, nor speaking as mere vocalisation of writing. The two are distinct, yet related, media for language'd poetry, and they demand different methods for composition. Her self-published collection I/T Selected Poems 1980-1996, from 1998, comprises an outfolding matte black jacket with a CD in one sleeve and a book in the other, more or less equal in size. Some pieces are included in both print and sound form, and others in only one. It is clear that Stewart composes in two modes, and the choices she makes are different for each. Together, they achieve a wonderful weight to her work that's felt at each decision: the smallest mark of punctuation, or the smallest glottal modulation. Going through I/T, I remember why I never call Stewart a sound- or performance poet: these sub-categories assume that the parent category is an essential one. In Stewart's work, I feel film, radio, mythos, machines, weapons, pixels and car engines, all destroying each other, screens cracking and acetate lacquering.

See a video of Amanda Stewart in Barcelona, read her on When Pressed and Jacket 

(Photograph by Heidrun Lohr)