Danielle Freakley speaks up and out
The delicate and subversive nature of Danielle Freakley’s work means she often goes unrecognised or deliberately unnoticed, but this perplexing multi-disciplinary artist is one of Western Australia’s most successful and significant.
UNTIL NOW, Danielle Freakley, the artist behind the art, has absented herself, leaving her close to undetectable despite her substantial body of work. She has made disruption a habit and this extends to the accepted relationship between the artist and the art world’s machine of agents and representation that generates shows, sales, and profiles that keep practitioners in view. Freakley says Roland Barthes and his 1967 essay The Death of the Author is her primary early influence from art school days, which perhaps explains why she has been hard to know.
Barthes asks us to consider the interaction of reader with text, rather than focus on the intentions or biographical context of the writer, leaving meaning to be generated spontaneously as a product of the reader’s engagement. As a result, Freakley removes herself as author/artist and her audience becomes the work through the act of engaging in the performance space she creates; as audience member you may not even be aware you are participating in a performance work, so removed is the orchestrator.
Since beginning her practice as a WAAPA student in 2000, a decision to refuse interviews is consistent with Freakley’s approach to her art—she is not the point—though she adds she is sometimes inclined “to dismantle” and “to use press interviews” as part of her artwork. There have been momentary slippages and the occasional quote has surfaced; there are breezy bio online descriptors that appear on a loop depending which arts website you engage with. Reviews tap into the notion of the work and offer observations on what it all means, but the voice of the author, Freakley, is barely audible.
Her own website offers access to her catalogue of mostly non-acquisitive works and an extensive exhibitions list that positions this important practitioner. She has succeeded in making her work speak for itself. Widely shown internationally—think Tate, Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, Arsenale Venice Arte Laguna Prize, Performance Biennial of New York—Freakley has fascinated audiences with her originality and practically omnific skills as she ploughs through public spaces disrupting norms. It is fortunate for this writer and Freakley’s audience that she has departed from her press ban to participate in this interview.
FREAKLEY’S WORK REVOLVES around an obsession with language and with the exchange of words in what she calls a “social practice”. Her private persona’s invisibility lies in her long-term engagement with her concept of “voice theft”, the act that allows her the luxury of maintaining her personal silence while commandeering others’ words. She disrupts social communication to create new ways of hearing and speaking and to find meaning.
Speaking on her early influences, there was Barthes and before him, her maternal grandfather. The connection with him and his practice as musician and videographer surfaces when she is explaining aspects of her current new work involving Virtual Reality (VR) and learning to code entire VR worlds herself. In 2019 she was shortlisted for an Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) Award that supports performance artists working in the virtual realm, and later won an award to create the VR work from the Copyright Agency.
Freakley has recently completed an intensive VR course so that rather than sitting with a technician and directing what she wants made, she will construct VR worlds herself while being competent to collaborate with experts up the chain. She also speaks of confronting technical issues with her sculpture projects, diving deep into problem solving involving solvents and resins that wouldn’t behave, experimental casting, trial and error, of hair-pulling frustration and finally success through dogged searching. A sense of a curious and competent investigator emerges. Where does this drive for learning a diverse range of skills come from? Enter Francois La Grenade, her grandfather.
Now 95, this Seychellois divides his time between Perth and his island home, with Freakley describing him as a famous musician—teaching instruments to many, including the President of the Seychelles. While she dismisses any notion of artistic influence from her parents, both busy in their professional lives, Freakley expounds on the creativity, ingenuity and musicality of Francois. She describes him as a self-taught musician who played multiple instruments in more than twenty 20 bands over his life, travelling the waters and performing across the archipelago of more than 100 islands.
“He managed bands, and he taught a lot of people in the Seychelles for free, instruments which he self-taught. He’s teaching them his way of playing this instrument when nobody’s really taught him, and he made instruments as well … he was obsessed with music,” says Freakley of her grandfather who was occasionally a one-man band with strapped-on instruments.
Once, as a young man working on the docks, he saw a catalogue for musical instruments, one featuring a double bass. He had never seen one and had no idea what it sounded like, but he wanted one. He couldn’t afford one, so with a friend decided to construct his own, figuring it was simply an oversized violin.
Freakley’s own obsessional creativity and ingenuity mirrors her grand-père’s. They share the flair of DIY, on the fly, the hack; of self-taught ways and a certain amount of secrecy and sorcery. At times, Freakley isn’t sure if her grandfather is telling her the truth, his version of a truth, or just a plain bald-faced lie, but the magic is there and she says it doesn’t really matter because the intent is pure.
Freakley’s own obsessional creativity and ingenuity mirrors her grand-père’s. They share the flair of DIY, on the fly, the hack, of self-taught ways and a certain amount of secrecy and sorcery.
When at times he is hired to video funerals, he edits old footage that he has been supplied of the deceased and superimposes them “living”, allowing them to walk around their own funeral, and eventually to “fly up to heaven” from the coffin; he wants to make the dead person happy. Freakley questions the ethics of these inserted subliminal images but applauds the artfulness. Like her grandfather, Freakley is all about the connection. From her earliest performance work, she engages with what she calls her “language projects” and reflects that her early art student practice feeds into her current work, referring to “a series of other text and language learning social works” she has been making for years.
“I made learning kits for speaking backwards; autographed bits of rubbish from anyone to anyone from inside wheelie bins in Perth; and speaking in the bin through a Darth Vader automated microphone. I made translations for others through earpieces in everyday life … when I started art school I was 17 and I was asked to make a board game as one of our assignments. People were throwing balls and paint onto paper, and I didn’t find much joy in it, so I thought of another game. I went up to people and said nothing and waited till they spoke to me, then whatever they said I wrote down, I would then go to someone else nearby and just say what I wrote down to this next person, and then write down whatever they said to me in response. This went on for an hour or two and annoyed the shit out of everyone; not sure people thought it was a good board game.”
The perpetuation of the language projects can be traced back to her graduation when, as she commenced life as a career artist, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the interactions she experienced:
“Because I was such a workaholic and didn’t socialise much outside [of] attending art openings … these kinds of social events had a deeper impact on me; art openings were my main form of social sustenance back then. I was often disillusioned with how promo-riddled and predictable art opening conversations appeared. Early on, I often felt a deep disconnection. I felt that nearly everyone was stuck on a default small talk treadmill.
“All the conversations felt highly predictable. I felt … like people were just quoting from sitcoms or something … I could anticipate what they were saying before they were saying it, and it was so frustrating that, I guess … doing this work came out of that feeling at that time. It’s like exposure therapy. Like if you’re afraid of the dark, you go into the forest in the middle of the night and you spend the night … I felt so frustrated by that, that I just thought, okay, I’ll go into it. But of course, then it grew into something else entirely.”
THAT “SOMETHING ELSE” was her venerated performance work Quote Generator (2006-2010).
“Speaking in quotes was the ultimate default conversation, and this was exactly what I didn’t like about art openings. So maybe in that way, speaking as the Quote Generator could be a form of exposure therapy,” explains Freakley.
The Quote Generator delivered Freakley speaking in public spaces only in quotes for three years, consistently adding the credit for the known originator of the phrase and the year it was said. In a television segment with Andrew Denton, Freakley responds to each question with pertinent answers constructed entirely by using “stolen voices”, each time with appropriate attribution, all from her memory bank. On trains, in random public locations like bars or shops, this was how Freakley conversed and she received wildly diverse reactions, some going along with her, others thinking they were in the presence of a mad woman. A clip of her speaking with a Disney theme park Cinderella is a triumph in bemusement and bewilderment—both actors not breaking character.
“I realise now, that [board game] work is so close to the Quote Generator,” she says. “I had completely forgotten about it. So maybe the Quote Generator could also be seen as an iteration of a work I made when I was 17, and was probably influenced by texts I was reading at the time on analysing the audience: [Peter] Handke, Barthes, [Guy] Debord, etcetera, and [by] being a fan of Andy Kaufman. The Quote Generator work came from these places at the beginning.”
This “stealing of voices” that Freakley refers to is also the basis for her ongoing work Imaginary Friend, comprising many iterations from 2011 onwards. Manifesting in solo performance, group collaborative social practice, sculpture, and now VR, the Imaginary Friend works are more obscure and convoluted than any that have preceded them and involve non-disclosure agreements that prohibit further discussion here.
The Quote Generator delivered Freakley speaking in public spaces only in quotes for three years, consistently adding the credit for the known originator of the phrase and the year it was said. … A clip of her speaking with a Disney theme park Cinderella is a triumph in bemusement and bewilderment—both actors not breaking character.
Another of freakley’s ongoing works is Speecheoke, an extrapolation of the idea of stealing others’ words in order to find new meaning and ways of expressing feelings. She explains that the idea for Speecheoke came to her while working with her grandfather on his karaoke videos. Francois is a prolific karaoke video producer, regaling friends and visitors to stand in front of his blue screen while he delves into special effects. She has also been involved with other artists who have used versions of karaoke, including Danceoke with Flux Factory in New York, and the more academic Theoryoke from School of Love in conjunction with A.PASS in Belgium. Speecheoke is karaoke, but instead of choosing a song to sing, the participant selects a speech to deliver. Freakley connects the dots between her pieces:
“There’s always the language theft—with the Quote Generator, with the Dictator [Equal Opportunity to be a Dictator], they’re all doing it—and with Imaginary Friend to some degree. Many of my works ask people to project and introject others directly—a form of ventriloquism, bodysnatching, de-authoring and re-authoring each other on the fly.”
THE ACT OF VENTRILOQUISM informs Freakley’s work in The View From Here, Equal Opportunity to be a Dictator (2017 – 2021). Earlier iterations of the work gave volunteer participants the opportunity to put words into Freakley’s mouth by using the magic word “say” as the prompt, and she in turn uses the prompt to reverse the action. The AGWA setting allows visiting groups to share the experience with each other, and also for individuals to converse with strangers in the gallery. Before engaging with the work, participants receive instruction via an induction tutorial that references the days of VHS technology and workplace safety videos. Freakley puts that the work asks the audience to challenge themselves, to find how they share power.
“It challenges [the participant] to empathise, to listen beyond the words to body language in day-to-day conversations; and then it asks them to physically, actively share voices. It asks them to shift their way of talking and thinking and to try to walk in another person’s shoes; or understand what their contribution is to another voice, how the projection of the sub-textual happens within a conversation. We fight for our voice our whole lives, we share and fight for the voice of others, too. The work challenges the audience to find ways to move in an echo chamber. This also leads into the principal of activism and how we can use our voice to fight for those who cannot speak for themselves. Who has the right to speak for another?”
“We fight for our voice our whole lives, we share and fight for the voice of others, too,” Freakley says. “Equal Opportunity to be a Dictator challenges the audience to find ways to move in an echo chamber. This also leads into the principal of activism and how we can use our voice to fight for those who cannot speak for themselves. Who has the right to speak for another?”
Freakley states that Equal Opportunity to be a Dictator intentionally challenges many cultural, intergenerational, gender, race, class, and political issues. She points out that this might not seem obvious as an outcome, but suggests that when many combinations of people from different socio-political, generational and cultural positions attempt to speak for each other in this piece, cross-positioned tensions cannot help being confronted.
“People must find different ways to find themselves in this mimetic universe. Equal Opportunity to be a Dictator is a social practice artwork where people intuit each other’s voice directly. Anyone can offer others something to say (feed them a line), and anyone can also speak what others offer them to say (say the line they are fed) as conversation. Everyone can say the lines they are given in their own way. People have agency in saying their lines, they can edit, refuse, embody however they wish. It’s a fluid switching game of director/actor, parent/child, language teacher/language learner, agent/shadower; predictive coding of others and the self,” Freakley explains.
DAYS AFTER OUR INTERVIEW, Freakley reveals more about her behind-the-scenes practice. In 2015 she was invited by an unnamed international curator to what she describes as “a weird and reclusive space in northern France, an arts commune”. She talks of secrecy, of admittance by invitation only, of mathematicians, philosophers, dancers—creatives testing out their projects with each other: “I’ve worked with many creatives, we’re all guinea pigs for each other’s work,” she says. Since being invited, she has lived (pre-pandemic) in the commune for three to four months every year. The rules are to be as inclusive as possible, leave no trace, to look out for one another, and Freakley adds, “to be aware of each other’s asymmetries”.
Underscoring her interventionist social practice is an engagement with all ethical aspects attached to bringing work to an unsuspecting audience. “Looking out” for her participants’ wellbeing overrides all other preoccupations, even the building of her own reputation since press bans are often imposed to protect her audience’s privacy. Like Francois La Grenade, Danielle Freakley has a certain charm, the capacity to disarm, to ambush, and baffle.
This article was first published in the print publication The View From Here in October 2021 under the title Speaking Up.