The Labour of Friendship: Barbara Cleveland’s Thinking Business

The year was 2010, or maybe 2009, and you performed at Serial Space or possibly Carriageworks.

It went for hours, it was violent and uncomfortable, and I can’t recall any specific details, just murky lighting and dark humour. There might have been hecklers. How much of this memory is influenced by documentation I can’t say. I’m thinking of those iconic photos of you in homemade costumes, spotlit against a red curtain. Back then you went by the name of Brown Council and, as well as these live feats of endurance, you created durational performances for the camera. Your choice of costume, props and actions was deliberately citational: they became tools through which you situated your practice within the genealogies of performance art and feminist activism. Your early video works focused on the completion of a set task, drawn out over an unnaturally long time, but without the slipperiness of being “live”. Which is to say, without an audience other than the rolling camera, you maintained control of how these actions were recorded or remembered.


The year was 2013 and Performance Space turned thirty.

In the twelve months prior I had been working on Performance Space’s archives with Julianne Campbell, sorting and cataloguing ephemera from Sydney’s experimental performance scene, some examples of which were included in the catalogue for You’re History, the anniversary program that celebrated Performance Space’s legacy and “the future of performance in Australia”. For this program, you presented an ode to a forgotten figure of Australian performance art, in the form of a video portrait titled This is Barbara Cleveland. Like you, I was thinking about the archive, its gaps and omissions, and what the future of performance might be when so much of our local art history remains unrecorded (as you have pointed out, Anne Marsh’s seminal book on Australian performance extends only to 1992). I hadn’t yet read Rebecca Schneider’s polemic against the archive and the place of performance therein. Schneider argued that conceiving of performance as “disappearing” adheres to an imperialist and epistemological Western archival logic, which performance itself is antithetical to.[1] Schneider argued for different systems of archiving that may hold potential for altnerate forms of knowledge production.  Following Schneider, the archive has the potential for a radical rethinking, which proposes archives as containers of bodily-knowledge and embodied action. Barbara Cleveland never really existed, but to labour that misses the point. Through reenactment and restaging, your multifaceted and multi-year investigations into Cleveland radically rethought how one might approach performance archives, proposing alternatives to the “traces” of performance typically held within archives. Performance does not disappear or vanish as I had been led to believe in art school: it lives on in memories and bodies, no matter how unreliable.


The year was 2016, and it was the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

At artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s invitation, Barbara Cleveland participated in You Imagine What You Desire for the Sydney Biennale. You became BC Institute, and I was employed as venue manager. I helped deliver the program of performances and lectures, in what was a former gallery. The range of events focused on the cultures of performance and feminism, particularly those which some might refer to as “minor”, which had been marginalised or minimised. Contextualising, theorising, historicising, learning, embodying, absorbing, doing, practicing, reflecting—these were just some of the modes of engagement that unfolded over the three-month program. I took part in I Remember, a performance in which a microphone was passed around a circle of participants who shared memories of performances, beginning each time with the refrain I Remember. As the memories accumulated, a history was shaped: one which was shared, local, multidirectional, specific, and entirely relative to who was in the room. Performance theorist and art historian Amelia Jones calls attention to the vicissitudes of feminist curating, and history-making more broadly. “If it weren’t for such intimacies—moments of fortuitous scholarly curiosity become friendship—such works would remain unknown forever,” stated Jones, regarding her serendipitous encounter with the (once) unknown works of Barbara Smith.[2] I would also argue for the reverse, that friendship can be the basis of scholarly research and feminist history making. Making History was the title of the project, a clear reminder that history is constructed by those privileged enough to be in the room.


It was later in the year 2016 and I visited Hannah Arendt’s grave.

Hannah Arendt is buried in upstate New York, at the College I attended. I was in graduate school, and it was there that I learnt about her friendship with novelist and political activist Mary McCarthy. “It’s not that we think so much alike,” writes Hannah on the subject of her friendship with Mary, it is that “we do this thinking-business for and with each other.”[3] Writing, reading, producing knowledge or art—indeed, thinking—is a collective act. In so much of my reading I am drawn to the footnotes, the annotations, the citations. Artist Moyra Davey has likened it to the experience of a treasure hunt, discovering sources in the notes and references of texts through which one might unearth a community of peer writers and thinkers.[4] I have come to think of it as a feminist practice of care.


The year was 2019, and you made a new work and titled it This is a stained glass window.

It is mesmerising. The close-ups of hand gestures, the intimacy of a voiceover, and the feeling of watching something very private unfold. Here, we witness constant negotiation, endless preparation, perpetual discussions of lighting states, and the mother of all questions: “how to begin”. It was uncomfortable to watch, excruciatingly familiar for anyone who has experienced a creative collaboration, particularly one attuned to embodiment practices, but not in the same way as your early endurance works. What emerges in this work is a shared language, an intimate shorthand, a profound sense of trust that comes with fifteen years of working together. “I really hate this,” one of you says, “because usually I like to be in control,” but you keep going and the coloured gels move in front of your faces and hands like so many moments of illumination.


The year is 2020 and I’m in Melbourne and I have been in lockdown for almost six months.

Your invitation to write has me thinking about friendship. “Maintenance is a drag,” Meirle Laderman Ukeles wrote in 1969, “it takes all the fucking time”.[5] To maintain friendships over a decade is a process requiring dedicated commitment and a lot of invisible labour, and sustaining a creative collaboration over a decade is a similar feat. Friendships slip into work, and work slips into friendship. It is precisely this entanglement of emotional, affective, creative and productive labour that This is a stained glass window evokes. Under cognitive capitalism, our friendships can be exploited to make us work faster, harder, more efficiently, to keep us at work longer, to trick us into thinking that work is our second family. Friendship, along with cooperation, relationality, networking and sharing, becomes co-opted as an immaterial asset upon which productive labor depends. However, friendship is a labour process that reproduces itself both for and against the dominant capitalist culture. Friendship is political and sacrificial. Revisiting your works and watching This is a stained glass window from my home in Melbourne, I am witnessing the cumulative output of an enduring, interdependent collaboration, sustained through negotiation, improvisation, friendship and affinity.

[1] “If we consider performance as ‘of’ disappearance,” writes Schneider, “if we think of the ephemeral as that which ‘vanishes,’ and if we think of performance as the antithesis of preservation, do we limit ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by a cultural habituation to the patrilineal, West-identified (arguably whitecultural) logic of the archive?”  Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains, Routledge, London and New York, 2011, p. 99.

[2] See Amelia Jones, “Feminist Subjects versus Feminist Effects: The Curating of Feminist Art (or is it the Feminist Curating of Art?)”, Curating in Feminist Thought,, Issue 29, May 2016.

[3] Céline Condorelli, The Company She Keeps, London: Book Works, 2014, 15.

[4] Moyra Davey, “Mother Reader: Essential Literature on Motherhood”, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001.

[5] Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition: ‘CARE’, 1969”,