Spitball Constellation: Forest Keegel
A little bit disgusting, a little bit real.
As part of the annual Arts Open event here in Jaara Country, Castlemaine, artist Forest Keegel transforms dirty paper towels from local washroom bins into an illuminating performance driven artwork, located in one of the cells up at the Old Castlemaine Gaol.
She enters the cell donning rubber gloves, dragging garbage bags full of discarded paper towels and a spitball mentality. It’s a right-time-right-place kind of situation and I’m pulled in via curiosity, unknowingly making the shift from onlooker to participant. Keegel begins to pull scrunched up paper towel out of the bags one by one—painstakingly collected over the previous week from public washrooms in the area—and slowly places them on a centrally located old cast-iron bed frame.
It’s a performance involving the delicate act of repetition; we see a strange selection process, a meditative arrangement. The objects are not changed, the collective ‘scrunching’ that has occurred in the washrooms is repurposed and we start to witness an emerging constellation—a displaced patterning of human behaviour that pays homage to the shared public/private experience remixing the underlying emotion of speculative disgust. There are tonal changes based on the wetness and subsequent colour of the paper. I can smell damp paper pulp. Visually it is beautifully poetic, the colours of the developing sculpture against surrounding walls are minimal; the underlit bedframe makes it glisten like opal crystal.
Fatigued from this process (and occasional commentary by worried onlookers about catching a virus), Keegel stands, leans into the wall and begins making and hurling spitballs upwards. My perception shifts to a more active performance experience directed at the ceiling; some join in while others walk off, disgusted by the germ-filled gestures at play here. Those that are left are frozen by the memories of what they have performed in washrooms and also what it must be like to inhabit prison confinement.
This is the Spitball Constellation; we look up and see solitude. We imagine lying on a bed with only a small ceiling to look at. Boredom. We think about all the germs we are sharing with the world.
Usually creating work that evokes a sense of the landscape of Victoria prior to colonisation, this artist often uses Indigenous plants and waste paper to create ephemeral sculpture (winning the Lorne Sculpture Biennale Sculpturescape Award for her participatory work Hyperventilate in 2014). This time, she connects the banal memorial of a colonialist prison infrastructure with the contemporary public washroom. Public toilets and gaols: everyone’s DNA is on them, like the footprint in a surreal crime scene. It’s hard to find out what breeds in the washroom bin. How long do germs actually live on paper? Creating a visual interpretation of scientific, historic and environmental research and highlighting those themes is crucial to the practice of Forest Keegel. Her research into paper towel usage led her towards scientific studies carried out by the European Tissue Symposium (ETS), providing data needed to control the market forces. Heralding the fact that people were coming out of public toilets with more germs than they had before they went in, recent research (April 2016) now ironically points to dryers being responsible for spreading germs 1300 times more than paper towels. And yet we are less disgusted by what we don’t see.
This artist playfully shows us the beauty in waste within the environment whilst also highlighting the product that’s been discarded and it’s ultimate impact on our ecology. Play is integral to this work, and as a community we are ultimately responsible for change-making in the world. Keegel brings listening, conversation and dedication to her inclusive art process—one that I have rarely come across. She invites you to get involved, be part of the making, the seeing, final creative outcomes and beyond.
Forest Keegel interrogates the authentic role and hidden meanings of community experience; evoking ideas around what it means to be wasteful. Wasting life and wasting paper link intrinsically to environment. It is holistically embedded in the ritualised practice of her art making. Firm beliefs are held in the democratisation of process as well—everyone can join in (or not), it’s an ongoing experience that becomes part of our lives, however fleeting it may be. Her art travels with the audience like an ephemeral narrative, the story of which comes directly from community. When the space is empty of people, what’s left is a ghostlike portrayal of our tarnished colonial history.
Arts Open is innovative in that it’s encourages public dialogue with the artist in their private studio but it is artists like Forest Keegel who push the boundaries of what the studio environment actually looks like. Her studio is also her exhibition space; no part of her process is hidden to the public. The dialogue occurs simultaneously as the work is made. Having just experienced the Sydney Biennale, I look forward to the time when Arts Open here in Castlemaine acknowledges more of the performative within visual art practice.
Spitball Constellation by Forest Keegel; Arts Open, Old Castlemaine Gaol, Castlemaine, March 2016 – artsopen.com.au
Klare Lanson is a Castlemaine-based writer, poet, performance maker and sound artist.