Fayen d’Evie is an artist, writer, and publisher, born in Malaysia, raised in Aotearoa New Zealand, and now living in the bushlands of unceded Jaara country, Australia. Her projects are often collaborative, and resist spectatorship by inviting audiences into sensorial readings of artworks. Fayen draws on blindness as a critical position that offers methods for navigating intersensory conversations, the tangible and intangible, hallucination, uncertainty, the precarious, and the concealed.
In this interview Fayen discusses issues around access in art practice (or as she suggests, instead asking “how can I expand the realm of invitation?”), experimental methods of blundering, pathways for trans-sensorial conversation, and how major grants can make the fundamental difference between giving up or keeping going, plus much more.
Also note that Fayen was walking through a valley on the phone for this interview, so the audio quality might be difficult to for some to comprehend (there are some cute birds in there though!). A transcript is provided below.
Fayen d’Evie interviewed by Thembi Soddell – October 16 2021
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Fayen d’Evie: Hi, I’m Fayen d’Evie. I live on Jaara Country in Muckleford, off grid on a property which is in the ironbark bushlands. I’m an artist and writer, researcher, mother and yeah, I’m not sure what else you need me to say?
Thembi Soddell: Um, yeah, so, I mean, I guess I’ll just say I was having a bit of a browse over your website, and I was really taken in by this phrase sensorial scores that you were using and this idea of offering pathways for trans-sensory conversation in your work. So I’d really, I’d be curious to know a little bit more about what that means for you, if that makes sense.
Fayen: Yeah, I guess my I began working with sensorial scores a few years back, probably about 2016, and it came about actually because of the failure of a show. Well, I thought it was a failure, that I had at Westspace, where I made a lot of tactile works, but people didn’t end up engaging in through touch. They mostly kept to visual ways of apprehending the works. And it really had me starting to question, well, you know, how do you invite people in to engage with work if it’s not a kind of standard ocular way that people are expecting when they go to a gallery? And so that led me to a year of experimentation, mostly in San Francisco and in Moscow, into different ways you could invite public audiences or small groups of invited private audiences to encounter exhibitions and artworks in different sensorial means. So this idea of sensorial scores is like an offering or a suggestion of a way that you might approach work. And it might be it might be through touch, but it also might be through listening in a particular way. It might be through movement, improvisations, whatever the work demands. And then the idea of transensorial pathways is because I began working from a position of blindness and engaging with a lot of blind collaborators, but as the work unfolded very quickly, I was also working with deaf and deaf-blind artists and performers. And so it made me realise that what I wanted to do was to provide different ways that people with different ways of engaging sensorially could have a conversation about the same work. And so I started to think through this idea of translations and this notion of a transensorial pathway where you could come to work from through listening, through reading, through vision, through touch, all sorts of the different ways, but ultimately, you could gather around the conversation of the work from whatever position and method of engagement you’re comfortable with.
Thembi: You’re right, wow. I love that idea. And so did you, do you find that with people engaging with that same work through different senses that they all get a same kind of feeling of the meaning or whatever it is behind the work? Or do you do you find like which senses people engage with influences, how they understand that work?
Fayen: I guess I’d put it a different way, is that I think everybody engages with work differently anyway. And this is just maybe opening out the realms of perceptual possibilities that are invited and validated. I mean, I think, you know, even if you have two people approaching a work in an ocular way they’re going to get different readings from it, or to people approaching it from reading. So it’s less about, you know, segregating senses as validating and inviting those ways into a work.
Thembi: Yeah, I love that idea. I’ve actually been starting to think about that a little bit with my own work because it’s very much like in the darkness; you are just purely relating to a work via listening. And I started thinking about like, what could that experience be like for, say, people who can’t, who are hard of hearing or d/Deaf? And how could I bring them into it? But I haven’t done much work on that yet, it’s kind of like in the back of my mind, like the poetics that could happen in that interaction.
Fayen: Yeah, and I think I mean, one of the early things I realised is that there doesn’t need to be a pressure on any single artist to solve everything within one work. So even the fact that you have had that kind of thought and inclination and curiosity means that that work that you have can, you know, can evolve down these different pathways. So I certainly had works that in retrospect, I thought that really didn’t cater to, you know, whatever kind of audience. For example, there was the work that I made for the Eavesdropping exhibition with Jen Bervin and Bryan Phillips and Andy Slater. And it involved an experiment in nonlinear2 poetry and this idea of poem to a moving dust cloud. But it was sort of through inversion so that the visitors entering would have to wander around the space to hear these overlapping narratives. And I really love that work, and I think it worked beautifully in terms of activating moving bodies through a space. But of course, it didn’t function for d/Deaf audiences. So since then, I’ve thought quite a lot about, well, know if this was to be restaged, how could you have that same notion of non-linear blundering that would invite in d/Deaf audiences, whether that’s through overlays of projected text or multiple videos, maybe in different sign languages, depending on where the work is being shown. So yeah, I think that that’s something that I think can hold people back because I think they can’t get it all right in one work, and then they kind of worry about looking like, Oh, well, I failed access in some way. Whereas I think that actually it’s, it’s a more useful space to go into that every time you create a work or show work, personally, I like to think about how can I expand the realm of invitation in for the specific occasion?
Thembi: Hmm. Yeah, I’m really interested in beginning to think about that a lot more, and I just feel like there’s so much creative potential in considering how different people engage with at work. So like, so much of my work is very much based around my own sensory because, you know, I’ve got like fairly extreme extreme sensory sensitivities, which I think is why I like to put things in the dark. And sometimes, like, you know, too much text or something like that will become really distracting. So it’s interesting to me to start thinking how my work is actually perceived by people who don’t have that same degree of like sensory sensitivities.
Fayen: Yeah, actually, I’ve just got a work that’s just been installed, which has just been installed, which is opening next year, February at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and, and that was an interesting process because it’s a commission for a room that is full access audiences and people with very different levels of engagement with art and ways of encountering art from children to adults, non-verbal various perceptual relationships to the world, including needing to make that room suitable as a time out or safe room for people with high sensitivity. And so in thinking that through one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is also not providing a, an experience of work that needs to be exactly the same at all times, like almost like a notion of like a temporal shift or a timeliness to work so that there might be a moment where it is, you know, very discrete small sounds. Or it might be a moment where there is more activation and animation. So, yeah, that’s just what made me think of when you’re talking about your approach
Thembi: And can you just clarify for me how that relates to access again? I think I lost it a little bit.
Fayen: So this OK, so this particular work that I just installed last week is for the Bella Room commission at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and that sits alongside, just outside their conventional gallery spaces in the National Centre for Creative Learning. It’s a place where they have artist educators that work with invited audiences. They can be school groups; they can be people with different disabilities. They can be multi-generational families. Various, various groups will come through that national set up a creative learning and engage with the Bella Room commission over the course of a year. And actually next week I start working with the artists educators to suggest different ways that they could engage different audiences. And obviously, you know, there’s going to be a different approach for, let’s say, just hypothetically, if you had invited a group of Deaf children, young children versus a group of perhaps Deaf artists who are highly involved in contemporary art, or there might be a difference between inviting in a neurodiverse audience versus a group of schoolchildren. So in each occasion we’re thinking through what are the ways that we can invite this group to experience this particular installation in ways that open up a conversation for them in the, in the most resonant ways?
Thembi: Yeah, well, that sounds awesome. And so I mean, in terms of this idea of access, are there sort of, I mean, specific barriers that you see within like the art world at large, like particularly sort of experimental type practice that, you know, you’d like to see changed or particular things that stick out that you wish people were thinking about more.
Fayen: I mean, I think one of the things is actually that people who are well-meaning about access can actually turn to blueprints that are not helpful. So for too long, people thought that access was ticking these boxes of having a couple of braille labels and one sign language tour. And really, that’s not necessarily inviting in audiences and cultivating a sense of belonging and a sense of empowerment and agency in terms of engaging with and discussing works. I also think that there’s there’s a lot of emphasis on access as sort of segregating disability as a specific form of access to be programmed for, rather than acknowledging our multiplicity of identities we might bring into a specific space. So I have a show on at the moment, I mean, it’s closed because of the lockdown, at Westspace. And as part of that, I commissioned a talk from a non visual artist, Carmen Papalia, who is based in Turtle Island in Canada, and, and he talks about interdependence as central to the radical restructuring of power. And this particular talk really opens out his ideas of open access, which is a much more radical concept about notions of really critically thinking about whether the works that you’re showing or the spaces that you are responsible for are actually inviting to the communities that you’re part of or serve. And I think that that’s a much more useful way to approach access. And I think one of the things that I really have to actively speak out to challenge are some of these access protocols that have been embedded that I think are not helpful.
Thembi: Hmm. Yeah. I somewhat recently read a book called Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Do you know that book at all?
Fayen: Yeah, yeah.
Thembi: And as I was reading that I was actually crying quite a lot because I had never conceived of a world where people would even want to accommodate some of my access needs because they quite like, I don’t know a little bit unusual, like, please don’t wear perfumes around me, like sensory overwhelm is quite difficult. Like, there are even things about my own disability I don’t even understand. So it’s hard to go ahead and say, Hey, can you accommodate me? But at the same time, I don’t know how. But I was reading this book and seeing all these ways of how, and that it wasn’t kind of like a power imbalance where other people were making, like, allowances for me, but just it’s a way of everybody collaborating and wanting to like, you know, honour and share with one another, which yeah, to me, was a very new concept. So…
Fayen: Yeah, I think the kind of work that’s been coming out of the states around access intimacy, you know, the mutual aid networks has really shifted the conversation of access. And I think it is really difficult when you’re not used to it to figure out how to articulate what your needs are at a particular time. But the other thing is if, if you don’t, then the people that you’re dealing with don’t have any idea. So it’s this kind of balancing; finding that you don’t feel pathologised as your practice, but creates the enabling conditions for you to be showing work in ways that you would like to be, and enabling that host of your work to understand what are going to be the most enabling conditions for you.
Thembi: Mm. Yeah, it’s that’s an ongoing issue I’m trying to figure out at the moment and also really think about other people’s access needs that I haven’t considered before. And yeah, it’s, it’s actually a really interesting space to start moving into and enjoying having more conversations with people about it.
Fayen: Actually it is one of those, I mean, it’s one of those, you know, as a mother, I think it’s really important for me to think about ways that children are invited into galleries and installations. And I really enjoy collaborating with children who wish to collaborate with me. And I also really enjoy spending time sharing my artwork with children. And I think that often the structures that are embedded as just protocol for galleries are not suited to children. I mean, there’s things like I remember when [son’s name] was little, you know, the hours of openings, exhibition openings, is terrible if you’ve got a young child because it’s exactly when they’re at their scratchiest and needing to have dinner and needing to go to bed. So, you know, the gradual shift to people allowing for like Saturday afternoon openings enabled more parents to be able to be present and not kind of conflicted. And similarly, there’s a lot of residences that won’t allow you to bring a child. So there’s so many things about the world that close off the possibilities of children being part of the mix. And to me, that just creates a sort of artificial elite situation where we’re also not inviting children to learn the sensorial scores about how they might relate to artworks.
Thembi: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I was even thinking the other day about, like, what were my defining moments that made me want to be an artist? And I think they were all when I was about five years old and my parents taking me to different shows, like, that have really influenced my practice now. So, yeah, I think that sounds really important to find ways to bring children into works. I mean, my work personally, I think, is a bit intense for children, and I’m always a little bit worried about what it will do to them. So, that’s yeah. I once had somebody’s kid come along to a rehearsal and he was sitting next to me and just goes to me: “This sounds like what happens in my nightmares.” So it’s like, [laughs] “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Fayen: I mean, maybe that’s a really interesting conversation point about, Well, you know what is going on in your nightmares? Or, you know, that can be a point. But also, I mean, then there’s other children too that I’m thinking of, in particular, children of sound artists that I work with who have grown up with this, their whole lives. And they actually, they can sleep through anything because, you know, [Thembi laughs] they would go to quite intense concerts. So again, it’s just a question of the extent to which this is unusual for people and the extent to which, yeah, children or others get validated as having, you know, it’s OK. I mean, as as an adult, I find some sound works to be too intense for me as well. And you know, we’ll leave those. And I think that that’s, you know, it’s just it’s OK. We don’t need to like, sanitise this from entire groups. Unless obviously it’s kind of inappropriate to young child, you know, that’s a different situation. But yeah, just notions of belonging that are about more than disability that can be about, you know, whether it’s cultural groups, gender and sexuality or just various notions of what it can be to be empowered to be part of a conversation.
Thembi: I guess, I mean, what I’m hearing from a few of the things you said is it’s basically people need to stop being scared and worried they aren’t going to get it right and worried they’re going to harm people. Or which, yeah, I think is a really big thing that I’ve noticed with people who aren’t disabled, for instance, that there’s just like a fear around how to treat that. And fear, and also, for me, it’s gender as well. It’s just, yeah, people get so scared and that makes me feel uncomfortable and that makes me feel othered as opposed to like, if they were just like, you know, maybe get it wrong, but not then apologise profusely over and over again, which just makes me feel uncomfortable.
Fayen: Yeah, I mean, a few years ago, I came up with this experimental method of blundering, which initially came from reclaiming the idea of stumbling blindly from blindness as a as a constructive and positive way to move through the world. And and one of the things about blundering is this, is this, willingness to go into precarious or uncertain territory, but understanding that it’s not just complete with complete ignorance, but with a with a sense of care, taking time to stop and be attentive to what’s going on and gradually also wayfinding. So developing methods of conversation, figuring out where, yeah, where there’s overlapping interests, but just continually keeping it in this open and respectful experimental space. Anyway, I find that a useful way to approach these things.
Thembi: Yeah, I mean, that makes a lot of sense. Another thing I actually wanted to ask you about just another thing I’ve been thinking about in my practice is this idea of working regionally and sustaining a practice like, I feel like it’s been quite hard for me because most of my networks are in Melbourne, and I’m wondering if you have found any challenges or ways of working that work really well, or yeah, do you have thoughts around that?
Fayen: I left Melbourne at the time where I just really couldn’t afford it anymore, like I just couldn’t afford the rent plus the rent on a studio. I had a young child and all of the activities for children, you know, had fees and, you know [laughs], just everything seemed really expensive. And so I moved out here because we’re off grid. There’s hardly any bills anymore. The studio’s here. There’s a lot of space to roam. And so I just found it financially much better. I think the main struggles that I have had is actually not about being a regional artist, but about just being an artist, that it’s hard to find stable ways of working and having income. And certainly a few years back, say about five years back, I did think about giving up the art practice because it was just too expensive, putting money into shows, into books, into all of these things while not having a stable income to care for my son, and I just constantly felt like I was just hustling to try and make money and never quite managing to pay the bills. And then I was really fortunate that I got a regional development award from the Melbourne Sculpture Prize, and it was was at that moment that I was thinking about giving up and it gave me the breathing room of a year to not give up. And and now in terms of sustainability, I think, I mean, I really love being away from Melbourne, but having the potential to go in and be part of that network, I don’t feel excluded at all. So, yeah, I guess I just I found a sustainable path, but it’s taken a long time.
Thembi: Yeah, that makes sense. I had a really similar thing to you where I was just about like very much thinking about quitting, and then I really fortunately got this Regional Arts Victoria Fellowship, which the aim behind it was to figure out how can I work as a disabled artist from a distance who finds it a bit difficult to travel? And yeah, just like dealing with how hard it is to be an artist and finding ways around it. So I’ve really appreciated having the fellowship time to think about it.
Fayen: Yeah, so, I mean, I think that that is really crucially important, and maybe if this is going out, you know, if you’re releasing some somewhere that that points clearly made, that these grants—sizeable grants—do make a difference, a fundamental and significant difference in somebody giving up or figuring out how to move on. And so I think that that’s important for funders to hear to know that this is valued and valuable. But I think the other part of it is I’m becoming more assertive about not doing things for free, as well, that I get invited to do a lot of things that are, you know, people expecting me to travel from here down to Melbourne for a one hour talk and just pay me for that hour and not actually acknowledging that that thing takes my entire day. So, so now, you know, I mean, it’s different if it’s people who are part of my network who you know, I’m close to you, if they want anything I pretty much would do anything for them, but I’m talking about that next rung of invitations that aren’t truly valuing my time and my energy. So I’ve started to think, actually, if I decline it, then that gives them a chance to offer it to somebody who it suits better. And I think that that’s something to be really aware of, too about, you know, inviting and engaging regional artists that you that people who are inviting you into their projects do need to make extra allowance and funding for the additional time necessary for us to engage.
Thembi: Yeah, I feel exactly the same way, and that’s a issue I’ve had coming up a lot as well. It’s just, yeah, it’s just not enough money to travel there and back and stay over if you have to, which often I have to do. [Fayen “yeah”]. And yeah, but then people kind of like, well, we’ve only got this small amount of funding, so we’ll just like leave you out of it, which is a shame, too. But yeah, and I also have a like I’m starting to get much more staunch about making sure I’m paid properly and also other people and projects are paid properly commensurate to, you know, how much effort and emotional energy and all that kind of thing they’re putting in. So yeah, I think it’s a shame when people don’t necessarily consider. And it’s like, I know early in my practice it was all about like, I just want to make this work happen, so I’ll like, not, you know, do it on next to nothing and compromise every aspect of it just to get it done, but now I’m like, no, you’ve got to be really careful with that budget and think about, yeah, it’s a career you can’t just not pay yourself, for instance.
Fayen: But I think it’s not, I mean, for me, it’s not just about the payment, it’s also about our time because as you say, quite often we need to stay over or, you know, so it can be a one hour commitment, can actually turn into one day or two days away from other things. And so that’s that’s removing energy from our own work. So I think that, yeah, it’s a it’s a bit of a trap that you fall into when you’re an emerging artist and thinking that you need to say yes to all these things and that it’s only over time that you start to understand that that part of that sustainability of practice does require more people to be more rigorous about valuing their own time.
Thembi: Yes, absolutely. I’m I’m big on that. Also, like, I feel like it’s really important for me to always consider like what’s the biggest benefit for the least amount of energy, which maybe sounds strange, but it’s just like, that’s how I’ve managed to do as much as I’ve done while having a disability as well.
Fayen: Well, I think that that’s, I don’t think that’s strange at all. In fact, that’s something that I’m thinking about at the moment because, you know, as we go through this period of lockdown to opening up and a lot of institutions and galleries and programming happening, a lot of invitations, I think it’s crucial to think, yeah you know, where can I actually have the most transformative impact for, you know, an efficient amount of energy within that? And where do I need to protect the space for my own ideas and propositions, experiments, curiosities to emerge rather than filling it in with everybody else’s priorities?
Thembi: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really good point. And speaking of which, I know that you wanted to make sure this didn’t run for too long. So, maybe we’ll wrap up. But just before we do, I wanted to ask if there’s anything else you’d really like to say that we’ve perhaps missed. Or yeah…
Fayen: Maybe. I mean, not particularly. As I said, you know, I’m really honest about saying, I am really busy at the moment. I’m trying to get a lot of [indecipherable] sound works and video works together. My son is kind of started back at school, but it’s sort of one of those part time moments where it’s still homeschooling. So there’s a lot of things to juggle. But one of the things that comes to mind that could be useful to mention is that I think that it is very possible to have an international career as an artist, as a regional artist and as a regional artist with a disability. And I think that, that was already something that was part of my world before COVID through collaborations, particularly with artists in the States, a little bit in Europe, but more in the States, and over this COVID time that’s really just expanded exponentially in the ways that we interact over the internet—different workshops that we are working on, art projects of various kinds. And so I’m looking forward in January to heading over to the States to reconnect physically with some of these people. But I think that there’s something about having the space and the time I find being here in the regions that allows me to think beyond Melbourne, to both value my network that is within Melbourne, but also to feel equally happy about, you know, this morning, I was messaging with a friend in San Francisco and artist Jennifer Justice, who is going to be co-delivering a workshop on ekphrastic audio description and image description with me in a couple of weeks. So, yeah, I think as a regional artist, you actually you can be liberated to think beyond sort of the local big city to other people that you can be collaborating with. And that’s something that I’ve really found being here.
Thembi: How do you approach those distant collaborations, like are there different methods of working than you would with people in person or does it sort of work naturally?
Fayen: It’s pretty natural. I just write to people and start a conversation, and if they’re kind of interested in what I’m offering, then the conversation grows and, you know, sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere. You know, there’s a trailing thread there. Sometimes the thread picks up after some years, but I actually really have found most people to be really open to collaborating. I mean, I think when I first met Andy Slater, for example, who is the founder of the Society of Visually Impaired Sound Artists, we had some interactions, you know, over Facebook Messenger, maybe a couple of emails. And we and we decided when we met up, the best thing to do was to have a performance. So I have helped to organise a performance for us at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. And it was our first physical meeting, was doing this crazy wayfinding performance using obsolete technology and a giant sculptural cane that Jennifer Justice had made. So no, I think if you find the right people out there who are, you know, equally interested in the ideas that you’re interested in, there’s nothing really stopping you just ‘cause you’re physically isolated. Because of course, you know, within the disability community, as we’ve already mentioned, a lot of people find it difficult to travel anyway, and some people are chronically isolated. So, you know, there’s some yeah, there’s all sorts of scope for engaging people that, yeah, maybe traditional art spaces don’t get to engage with because they’re too tied to thinking about, you know, physical interactions.
Thembi: And so do you present from a distance as well? Or do you always end up there for the final presentation?
Fayen: No, no, I enjoy presenting from a dis-, from a distance. Sometimes I have to be part of it if I can’t find anyone else was willing to perform, or if I happen to be there and that’s useful. But no, I’m really looking forward that when the galleries open up in Melbourne, actually on the Saturday is going to be performances both at Westspace and at the Buxton. And I’m not involved in any of them physically. They’re all kind of remote or delegated or, you know, by my collaborators in some way. So I’m very happy about that because I really like to stay here in the bush to be really honest. I love it. And I, my ideal life is to be in a very small house, enjoying nature with my son and then occasionally taking these adventures, whether it’s into Melbourne or nationally or internationally, to go and, yeah, fill my mind and heart with new ideas and thoughts.
Thembi: Yeah, I’m right there with you on that one. That sounds very much like my ideal life, too, and I feel like I’ve been way less isolated since COVID happened because everyone now understands that you can communicate via Zoom. And yeah [Fayen laughs “yeah”], beforehand it was just I had no one to talk to. I’d go like six days a week without talking to a person. So now I’m talking to people every day, which is really great.
Fayen: Yeah and what’s also really great is the way that, you know, because it’s I mean, this is not great that it’s a world pandemic, but because people are in that space, I’ve been able to go to events with collaborators online, you know, virtual events, Zoom events, collaborators in Zimbabwe, conferences in New York. And it’s really, yeah, there’s like an increased level of access to things that I would have liked to have experienced, which is cool.
Thembi: Yeah. And what’s, what’s the, like, when you do work from a distance what is that actual work like? Is it, you know, what’s an example of a work that you would present remotely?
Fayen: Well, what an example actually is this: one of the performances that’s going to happen on that November weekend when the gallery is open, is a collaboration with dancer and choreographer, performer Benjamin Hancock. So we’re actually going to start working tomorrow on refining what the performance is. And say, he and I will talk a few times during the day. He’ll show me some movement stuff. He might video himself doing some more movement improv and send the video to me, and then we’ll meet up online again and discuss the video. So we figure out, you know, what the structure of the performance is, it’s going to be filmed and I won’t be there, but I can be there, you know, over FaceTime, suggesting angles and things that can happen. And when the ultimate performance is delivered, I also won’t be there, but I trust that Benjamin will deliver it, you know, in the ways that we talked about with some improvisations, that’ll be interesting. And I’m hoping that some people that I know will go there and let me know what it’s like in person. So, yeah, that’s one example.
Thembi: Yeah, right. Amazing. That’s awesome. Well, I mean, thank you so much for talking to me today ‘cause it’s given me lots of, lots to think about and I feel like you’re sort of ahead of me in this journey that I’m starting to take. So it’s really great to hear where it’s taken you and the way you approach it. So thank you so much.