Creativity, community, connections. If we could only define Britta Sorensen with these three words, it would be reductive. Influenced by dreamscapes from her childhood, the endless line of Hundertwasser, the performances of Marina Abramovic, Britta built her artistic identity based on experiential installations used as a provocative form to respond to change.
Born in the border country of Germany and Denmark, Britta and her husband Mike Sorensen decided to move to Margaret River two decades ago. Drawn by their connection with the land and Nature in what was then a sleepy region, the artist conquered her creative grounds in a way that would challenge the traditional concept of making art, where the process surpasses the outcome.
Marcel Duchamp said “Art can only be an open experimental activity.” Looking at your work where art is experience, do you agree with this statement?
Absolutely. For me art needs to be alive, it needs to be open to influences. I need be open to influences while I do art. It is never anything stationary and stagnatory. Art it is a living process and interaction.
In the Sorensen Architects website you are down as a designer.
My background is very eclectic. I grew up in community of artists, my parents and grand parents were also artists. To do art was the most natural thing in the world. So when I studied I decided to do Literature and Languages, as I wanted to do something different. Just before I came to Australia, I had an opportunity to work with my father and Mike, my husband, as they are both architects. When I moved here, I ended up enrolling in organic horticulture course, and did a bit of landscape design and continued to help Mike in his architectural practice, as he was overwhelmed with work.
Did you learn to weave as a child?
I did some formal textile art training courses in Denmark, where I learnt different techniques and a different medium. I trained in rag weaving and weaving on big looms, which I much enjoyed. But that was not my medium for the future. I liked more looser, wilder and more creative, more expressive.
My experience was different because I was brought up in a Danish schooling system in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Those are two things coming together. One is the Danish schooling system of aesthetics arts and crafts which is very strong and egalitarian. And the 1970’s, just being that highly experimental time in ideas and education. My schooling was very free and left wing. The Danish system is different because making art and creativity are encouraged from a very early age.
Craft is a part of life. Most people have a studio pottery in their kitchens because that is just what you do. You would have woven rugs you would have hand made this and that, and everything and everybody in Denmark would have had made things at some point in their life as well. It is just more part of normal life.
Also, it is an adult education system that is very different and goes back to an educator philosopher called Grundtvig, who very strongly thought that people should never stop learning and there are so called ‘ high schools’ but not like an Australian high school. They are education centres and anybody at any phase in time of their life can enter for short or long courses.
Is it similar to TAFE?
No, very different. They are usually in beautiful settings, they are independent, you go and live there when you do your courses. You contribute as in – you garden, you cook – there is a communal life involved and while you are there you can study anything from aged care to art. Many of the courses by nature are arts and crafts. It is meant for people to take time out from their normal professional life to evolve as human beings.
So when you moved to Western Australia what were your expectations?
When I first came to Australia, I came with the full intent of being a full time artist. But settling down in Margaret River 25 years ago, the things that I was doing were too bold, too bright and out there, and I wasn’t getting any attraction from art galleries or audience.
Was that the reaction of the Margaret River and Southwest Community or did you try Perth?
I didn’t try Perth. At the time, Perth looked to me so sleepy. I didn’t have any contacts in Melbourne, and I knew I needed to try it there. We were building a sustainable property and holiday chalets, and building an architectural practice. Trying to do artwork in Melbourne at the same time was just too much.
But we didn’t want to move. We came here because of the land and nature, so I put all my energy connecting with the land. The coast line in its full beauty, and the bush. I had an unexpected culture shock, not only because my creative side wasn’t going anywhere, but also due to being a woman in Western Australia, and I felt very out of place. I come from a very egalitarian upbringing, and so these new expectations of a woman’s role didn’t sit very well with me.
Although you struggled to find the right place and an audience, did you continue making art?
I kept being creative, mainly doing textile art for fun, for me and as presents.
Were you doing something different from what you did before in Germany?
Yes. When I came here I was doing bold usable art. I was doing rugs, big throws, large textile collage, mainly chunky jewellery wearable art. So, in 2014 I decided I wanted to do art again, but I wanted to do something that was process driven and not outcome driven. The times had changed, Margaret River and Perth had changed.
I got so frustrated with the decor wear shipped from China in those big containers, and the whole world drowning in cheap pretty stuff. I couldn’t see myself contributing with more pretty stuff. It was quite clear that was only worth it to put my energy into it if would make a sort of a change, or instigated something in people where they could think and feel something different. I wanted to touch people on a more visceral level.
In what visceral level?
On a visceral level where you actually feel something with your body, that doesn’t go through your brain. With all the visual impacts we have been bombarded with, we get overwhelmed. I wanted people to feel and then think about it, and that process causing change, but without preaching. Creating an experience, but not explaining fully. It is like an invitation, is always an invitation and then see what happens.
Can we say that The Three Caravans, that you created and presented in 2014 opened the way to your future concept of art as an experiment?
I thought it was a nice way of coming out creating this spatial installation with three caravans on my property, with three different environments where people would come visit them, and I could experiment and see.
I got three vintage caravans and I went mad decorating them with three different themes that are based in places where I go to in my inner refuge. The first one was my interpretation of the 70’s, and growing up in a very colourful artistic household. The second was my grandmothers world, as I was partially brought up by my grandparents. A more softer theme and old fashion with crystal wear, roses and doilies. And the third one was my connection with Nature – green and nature base. It was playful and like a child’s garden world.
People could come inside, lay on the bed, look at the cupboards, and make a cup of tea. I didn’t know how the public would respond to this, and it was incredible. We had a thousand people through, people coming back, people grieving, lots of children and lots of men.
What made you move forward from this experience?
It took me a little bit of time to process that step. I liked the impact I had on people, but also saw people that didn’t take it any further than enjoying the space. I wanted to go forward from that, and I didn’t want to create another consumable experience.
How did you get to Touched?
In 2018, I rented a larger studio, the stables at The Farm in Burnside road, as I wanted to do an installation with a performance. I thought then I was stronger in my creative identity, and I could put myself into the picture. I wanted to process that idea of consumption, visual and entertainment consumption. To break that I had to become vulnerable and put myself on the line. That was when I created an installation based on the inter-affect between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.
I wanted to explore that triangle of questions like ‘what happens to the artist when the viewer does the artwork?’ ‘How does the artist feel?’ ‘How does the artwork get informed by the artist responding the viewer watching the artwork?’ For that I had to make it physical, visceral and not so intellectual and wordy. So what I made was a humpy out of chicken wire, and prepared cubic metres of shredded clothes that I got from the Lions shed.
Why the need to put the viewer in your position or in that particular space?
In trying to entice people away from the consumer perspective. A lot of people consume art by buying it and hanging them on the walls, they are supporting an artist in their lives, and others just go and look, whether in art galleries, public spaces or artist studios which enriches their lives, but they don’t spend too much thought about the person who is actually making these artworks. It seems there is a chasm between the creative person and the consumer or viewer. By breaching that chasm, I was trying to provoke people to see that the artist is a vulnerable human being and not a master, and that the artwork shouldn’t be consumed in isolation, as I believe there is a connection there and everybody can be creative.
How do you prepare for a project as big as this?
I wanted to work with recycled materials only as an anti-consumption statement, clearly. I cut them all up, and put them on the floor. I kept a mattress, a sheep skin and a dune under that humpy / Mia-mia hut, and I basically lived there for the two weeks in some Moroccan pyjamas that said artist on the back. People were asked not to talk. I had an audio that I would refresh everyday, which was a kind of talking diary from how I felt the day before, just for people to be able to get into my headspace and to break the silence.
Did people have to leave their phones?
Yes, people had to leave their bags outside and their shoes, as in a practical level to keep the room clean and eliminate the sound, and with the psychological level I wanted people to feel a bit vulnerable in that space. People were invited to come in with me, to pick some fabric on the floor and weave with me in the wire frame. Some people did, others didn’t. Some people relish the experience and stayed for hours, others ran out after 30 seconds.
And why the silence? Is this your usual work environment that you wanted to transferred it there so the public could fully experience it?
I don’t mind words. I like to talk, I like to write and I like a good conversation. I learnt from previous events that people are insecure when they go to someone else’s environment, and they do small talk to make them feel comfortable. If I started to do small talk, the inter-affect wouldn’t happen. I wanted the intensity of the meeting between artwork, artist and viewer.
You must have been driven by a very firm belief of this is what art can do. You could have created a garden and have people walking around it, but you have chosen to use a form of art instead.
I’ve done the gardens (laughs). For me climate change is very real. Being a Nature connected person, I fear for the planet, I fear for the future generations. In my youth, I used to be a very political person in my environmental causes. I’m getting older, I don’t have the strength for the confrontation and direct fight with the politicians. But what I can do is to put the skills and my gift of creativity to that purpose. It is an attempt to use an under-utilised area to get somewhere with people in a small way. By the under-utilised area I mean the void of the visceral, that people don’t feel so much anymore, because they are constantly overwhelmed with action and visual stuff.
If I can get them to feel through experience and take them out of their normal zooming around of consuming and reacting to a different place, maybe I can cause behavioural changes. That is the idea behind it. And can be anything, doesn’t need to be necessarily recycled fabrics. I pick up topics.
In 2019, you presented Conversations with Colour. What was the concept behind it?
I conceptualised that experiential process a bit more to see if people would actually get it. I didn’t put myself on the line this time, and I separated it by colours, because I wanted people to immerse into a particular colour that stand for a particular emotion. The attempt was to slow people down.
“Colours are stranger than language” according to Louise Bourgois.
Yes. We cannot help but respond to it. I went to that experiment thinking “I will take the liberty to experiment with my audience and see what happens.” I had 1.5m x 2m wire panels on the wall for five different colour, and on each panel I would work for three days. That meant that by the end of it I curated the whole room by colours.
Did you block out the colours from each other?
I did at the beginning. I just had the yellow fabrics out and other objects that were yellow, and yellow smells like lemons as a multi-sensorial approach to that. Although it was once again in silence, it was strongly dependent on the audio.
What did the audio consist of this time?
The audio was a spoken flow of conscientiousness in association with that particular colour. It had a meditative effect because it was slow and picture evoking. I was inviting people to walk into that and really experience for example – yellow.
Most recently, you had the opportunity to exhibit three of these five works at the Southwest Times Show in Bunbury. Looking at White, we have noticed that you altered the work. You added words into it?
Yes. At the Southwest Times Show I couldn’t have audio because it was a group exhibition, and I wanted to take some of the words with me. With Black and Red, I had printed some words, originally to hang on the side of the work, but ended up on the floor. With White it was more delicate and ethereal and I couldn’t do that, so I wrote some of the words on very thin pieces of silk and mounted them on the front of the piece.
By taking that particular work that have been in Margaret River Region Open Studios before, did you find a different engagement when you took it to Bunbury Regional Art Gallery?
It was quite different and again, a learning process from my side as I’m not a white box artist. I was thrilled that I got in, but it was not interactive. My real drive was the interaction with the public. This wasn’t about the process, it was about the product that I put there, hopefully stimulating something in people. You get a completely different audience and that it is interesting to me, and it is worth exploring.
Would you ever consider having your work in a art gallery collection?
I would as it is a special audience. It is nice to reach people that are intellectually trained and open to see art on that level. I feel more recognised by having people who understand what I’m trying to do conceptually in front of the artwork. I had an art talk at BRAGWA and that was satisfying and I will do it again for that. But as for my drive to instigate behavioural change I need to be out in the main street and MRROS. I will do probably do both.
“My real drive was the interaction with the public.”
You present a specific work within a specific concept and technique. Do you think art galleries are well equipped to represent this kind of art projects?
Having an artwork made of recycled strips of fabric hanged in BRAGWA it is relatively new. Textile art has been terribly neglected through decades, centuries. It is a traditional art and a important one that is visually not being lifted into the higher realms of culture.
There is still this distinction between fine art with textile art being more of a decorative art?
I think it is on the way, but it is not there yet. Everywhere, internationally and on the internet, you see more craft based art, you see more female art, and for that reason, as they are connected more to textile art and more interactive art.
When you carry your awareness about the environment and Nature that comes from your childhood, do you also carry this idea that textile art is intrinsically connected with the history of women?
For me textile is feminine. I know in many countries, men are the weavers, for example in the Middle East weavers are usually men. In my personally history and in my traditional connection, it is not only what women make, also what women treasure. It encapsulates the sense of nurture, and preciousness. Textiles can either be utterly utilitarian, but very precious like your bridal gown and your silks. There is a whole scope of value with textiles. There are an enormous amount of skills and techniques. Textile art work is extremely time consuming and the application, the dedication for me is something really feminine.
Is it very physical working with textile based art?
It is very physical, and this acceptance of “I’ll just sit here and spend 247 hours knitting this jumper for a loved one, or weaving a tea towel for my bridal box.”, for me again that is intrinsically feminine. I find a strong human quality in that. But we have seen in the last decade or so, a resurrection of crafty techniques amongst young women. Young women who want to learn Macramé, and there is a new movement called Craftivism where there is meaning and action brought to this, and it is great.
Also, when we talk about textile art there is this talk about non structural or non functional structures. Why?
I think it is both, it can be both. Of course. But I think the difficulty for people to understand that textiles can be fine art, that their purpose can be just to be fine art, they don’t have to have a utilitarian function, is that traditionally they have always had utilitarian functions. So it is difficult for people to make that step, and then quite a few artists take that step deliberately and only do Fine Art, as in take it away from the utilitarian. I find it a little bit of a shame because we loose something.
I think honestly it can be both. And sometimes it can be both at the same time or an artist can straddle that and make both. Textile is just a medium.
How do you prepare your work? Do you do sketches and design a plan of how the installation should evolve?
I do sketches, I do test panels because a lot of it is tactile so I make little test panels of things. I do a lot of colour matching exercises. Have stored away in the studio bags and bags of these colour shredded rags and I pour colors out and put them together and experiment with colour combinations and textures.
I also do a lot of technique samples just to see how they apply and how they can be applied to a larger surface. I go out and test things on my friends when I’m planning an interaction to see whether I can actually make people do this, where the threshold is because if I get too complex with the techniques people go ‘ oh no no! I can’t do that’ and I can’t really preempt that so I need to test that at times. I go out and say “If I gave you that what would you do?” then I watch the response and then gauge “Okay MAYBE not that one …”(laughing).
How do you balance the labour with your aesthetics? People come and do their own work – how do you do this?
It is difficult! It is like somebody painting into your painting. It is a painful process but I do that deliberately. I sometimes make fine art just for myself and then I won’t have anyone dabble in it. But in an interactive process it is a very narrow fine path to walk because even though I don’t have a preconceived idea of the outcome, I have an expectation, an ambition to have an aesthetic outcome that is artistic enough to fulfil my own criteria, whatever that might be and it can change depending on what I do.
It is not completely random. I do intervene and guide. At the same time I try not to domineer and not to stifle and that can be tricky. When I get kids I love the raw energy and they are not hindered, but it can also be a very destructive process. It can also be other artists that take over the canvas and want to leave their mark in an artistic way and not in the intended response.
Once, someone who had a very robust dominant nature, picked up a neon orange big thick piece and tied it right in the middle of the work that was painstakingly done over five hours by another person. Well, I sat in the corner shrieking saying nothing, smiling and when that person walked out, then I have an inner dialogue with myself – ‘will I tolerate this behaviour or not ?’. There is a text at the end of the Touched catalogue which described how I talked to the fabrics and so sometimes I intervene and sometimes I don’t. Never when the person is there obviously. That was my rule.
The second rule was I didn’t take anything away but I allowed myself to relocate contributions. So when the contribution was disrespectful as my example above, sometimes these are great because they create unexpected new dynamics which can be lovely, but sometimes it was like trampling over somebody. Then I carefully unknotted the offending bit and put it in a neutral area, tying it with great care the same knot. I did a fair bit of that I have to admit. I visually couldn’t handle what happened with the colours.
And how does it work in the end, do you reclaim the work for yourself ?
For me yes it does. That is my aesthetic ambition. At the end, I do take hours turning it into a harmonious whole because I like it that way. I’m still working on just leaving a piece that been truly interactive just as it is, I can’t quite do that yet. Maybe one day.
Why we Volunteer is one of your latest works commissioned by The Heart Margaret River, which resulted again with the engagement of the local community with art practice.
Yes. The cause was not as an arts commission or a funded piece. It was a commission for an activation during the event, where I dressed up madly with loose dreads of used denim from the community as work wear. It had that symbolism behind it, that volunteering is hard work. I had people writing their reasons to volunteering onto the denim pieces with a big marker, and then I stitched it all. The stitch is the symbol of the tedious unpaid hours of volunteer time.
It doesn’t have a huge artistic value, but it has a nice message. At least it’s a community piece at The Heart, and I’m happy about that.
You are now a regular presence at the Margaret River Region Open Studios and one of the most visited studios. Apart from the obvious changes in the dates caused by the actual world wide pandemic scenario, what other changes and challenges did you have to face it in this year event?
This year for MRROS I originally planned – I’ve changed my mind three times which is very unusual for me – a space and installation that wasn’t textile but a whole curated space about an artists studio, picking up on the voyeurism, the visual consumption of going around artists studios in MRROS, continuing on this inter-effect but on a different way and I might still do that one day – I kinda like the cheekiness of that, giving back.
But I scrapped that when the big bush fires happened last summer. I though I have to respond to this as an artist, just have to, I cannot ignore this in my artistic process. So I had an interactive textile process planned for the original April/ May MRROS. I wanted people to work with greens only and make green multi-technicued artworks. That would have then been sent over to communities that had burnt out. There was an idea of transporting hope, regrowth from here to there. From community that has also experienced bushfires in the recent past. Then Covid hit and I thought okay that is not going to happen this year. And then they brought MRROS back in September and I thought I can’t do the bushfire anymore because it has been outdated. The thing to respond to if I want a response now would be Covid.
So I did a Covid installation at The Farm, in the stable studio and it wasn’t a textile based. On the experience of ‘the pause’, I called it The Pause, it was aimed at trying to tap into what resources people found in themselves during the lockdown.
The lockdown forced people to slow down in a way you were encouraging people to slow down in the first place.
Exactly, I was mining for the good things that happened during that time or not necessarily the good things, but the cracks and breaks that happened. The opportunities, the different perspectives, the learnings.
As an audience, Western Australians had a very privileged response to Covid however, it would be a very different experiment for Victoria.
I still think even down here, we got very lightly touched by it and people still got stunned by it and stopped in their normal rhythm of life and that is enough to cause something and its the something that I’m interested in.
Thank you Britta.
©All images in display Copyright reserved to Britta Sorensen and L.A.P.