A conversation between Olivia Poloni and Annika Koops from (September - November 2020)

Olivia: It would be great if our discussion could centre around the changes and challenges of being an artist-mother/creative-mother during COVID-19 but for some background I’m wondering if I could get a sense of how your practice and/or art changed when you became a mother? I personally found the shift unexpectedly shocking. I had an unwavering view that I was in control of how I would mother and continue my career once becoming a mother. It formed part of my decision to have children. Once it happened the control was very quickly taken out of my hands, actually it started with pregnancy and no longer having autonomy over my body. I still struggle with it today.

Annika: With regards to your background question about changes to my practice: I have been asked that question a couple of times recently and I am still finding it hard to articulate the answer, there is so much to it, positive and negative. I found chipping away at my practice whilst on maternity leave in early stages fine – applying for grants, doing some small drawings thinking about future projects – there was a lack of pressure. I carved out a little workspace at home, I was mothering first and keeping connected to my practice second. But it was when I returned to work (money job, not art practice) that I started to feel that loss of control like you mentioned, a sort of constant tetris of priorities. E was little (7 months) and the sheer organisational weight of getting out the door was daunting - packing her bag for childcare, writing notes about her routine, sterilizing and packing all tiny individual bits of plastic needed to express milk twice a day, and usually an outfit change because of bodily fluids – familiar scenes for any working Mum. But then there was maintaining the art practice in the hours outside of work: cramming it in wherever possible.

My studio practice before consisted of long days in the studio. The idea now of being able to ride my bike to studio and stay there for 12 plus hours is sort of hilarious, but I do miss it sorely. I know this is a bit of a modernist cliché (lone artist! toiling away!!) but I found the solitude thrilling. It is harder to reach that flow state of creative practice. I read an article talking about this recently: 'the zone' of creativity recently that said: Avoid noisy environments and opportunity for interruptions,”. It was not written by a mother.

My practice now is more dispersed, more explorative, more collaborative - and I think - more critical. I feel like my practice has loosened and there are always many threads before me, and sometimes, I get the chance to step back and looking at new ways to connect them, rather than letting it continuously unspool.

Other times though, it just feels like an insurmountable tangle, particularly now with the added complications of COVID. I would love to hear more about your experiences: particularly with regards to the loss of bodily autonomy: I was really feeling that recently after E having a particularly clingy bout…..

Olivia: ‘Insurmountable tangle’ - so concise. I do agree with you that most of that pressure was from an external job. In a way the necessity to work flexibly (around children) has fed into me being able to build up an independent curatorial practice, it took me a while to work that out and I was constantly trying keep it all happening and driving myself into the ground. Working independently has its challenges too, especially now during COVID and home schooling. It's been almost impossible but I've found my creative community a real source of stability, especially the Image Collective. At the beginning of lockdown I didn't know how I could continue with it and voiced my concern but it turned out to be the best thing. A creative project to work on regularly with like-minded, supportive women. Couldn't have asked for anything more during a global crisis, and we've achieved so much (publication, website with an engagement element, Instagram followers) and future plans.

You mentioned wanting me to expand on my feeling of loss of bodily autonomy. I guess I felt that as soon as I became pregnant my body was given over to incubating the baby. The changes that happen are so confronting. I really didn't enjoy pregnancy. And then after, the breastfeeding and sleeplessness.  I still struggle with having to be constantly physically available 24/7. It's exhausting. Last year when my second child started primary school I finally felt like I had part of myself back, however, COVID lockdowns have whacked that right out the window again. I've treasured my daily solo walks during this time. My work desk is off the kitchen in an open space so I'm visible to the children all the time and they are always in the background. I don't get that uninterrupted quiet zone unless I leave the house alone.

I really liked how you said 'My practice now is more dispersed, more explorative, more collaborative - and I think - more critical' I would agree that applies to my practice too. Having children has forced and allowed me to work in different modes. Whether that's intense concentration in short 45 minute bursts (the length of one sleep cycle) or seeking collaboration for creative connection outside of the home. Having children, with all its challenges, has really made me aware of the incredible women in my life and I really seek those connections in my work now.  I was lucky to have a close working relationship with Polixeni Papatrou who was so wise and generous with her wisdom. I've worked with Sally Smart and Natalie King, fierce leaders in their field who are also mothers, and this influence has given me critical insight into my creative approach and motherhood, and how to juggle both. Have you had any specific artist/creative mothers make an impact on your creative practice?

Annika: I agree that the external job really adds a lot of pressure. Something has to give at some point, often, unfortunately, it does seem to be at the expense of health: mental, physical, emotional. I'm so interested to hear about how others manage.

I am not home-schooling, but I keep thinking of how much extra pressure that must be: I have heard from family and friends of the never-ending administration of apps, passwords, documentation of works etc that you need to keep track of. It sounds enormously stressful, and HUGE amount of work. It’s not possible to work with E around, but I don't need to do extra work of a teacher as well as a mother. 

I too have found working with Image Collective to be such a source of inspiration and motivation. The regular meetings and discussions have been galvanizing, it has been great to see things taking shape and developing amidst the chaos. I feel like any tension or conflict (without which disagreement nothing new happens!) has worked through with such a lack of ego, and importantly, with care. I have been really interested to start turning over notions of care more thoughtfully - influenced certainly by Josephine’s and Olga's work, but also with regards to a general shift in reassessing priorities. I am not as invested in individual achievement as I was, this has been a lot of things: motherhood, Covid, climate change but working collectively is helping to emphasise that shift.

There are so many who have inspired me in terms of motherhood/parenting and artmaking.  When I gave birth so many reached out in support and solidarity - Jessie Scott - whose work via the Artist Parents group critically examinines the economic,social and cultural obstacles that parents (but especially mothers) have to face. I found that artists who I knew only in a more professional context reached out - Kate Daw was especially supportive and encouraging - and also passionately vocal about the challenges and opportunities that motherhood, working, and artmaking present. Helen Johnston, whose work I love, writes so well about artmaking and maternity. But also, crucially, my queer friends have taught me so much about parenting and care, and how those notions are connected. Whether through sharing the struggles of adoption or IVF (and showing me my own cis/het privileges) or feminist advocacy associated with parenting. I had a friend push me to foreground my experience as a mother in a grant application and include childcare costs for the project I was interstate on - something I had not even considered - a seemingly minor thing that had such a huge impact on what I was able to achieve.

I feel like there are so many more conversations that need to be had around issues of money, privilege and motherhood. In fact, around economic privilege and class in the arts more broadly.I really like this article by I read recently on this. I am lucky to have a partner who I can lean on financially, and move between each being the primary, or equal earners as well as having the flexibility to do so in our work. Of course, with flexibility usually comes precarity which has certainly been my experience throughout my career. But I love this line in the article: "we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed." It really resonated with me."Sponsored" by my husband: Why it's a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from

My thoughts here are a little muddled here, mixed in with my outrage (I should know better) regarding the Federal Budget and the lack of support for the career prospects of women, but also on the governments changes to Higher Ed being passed this week - effectively doubling the cost of an Arts Degree, but offering discount for those that can afford to pay upfront. Do you have any thoughts on this thorny intersection of Covid, motherhood, and economic privilege?

Olivia: Yes I’m on a few grant assessment boards and childcare as part of an application is rarely done. I’ve seen it a few times and totally accepted when it’s there. Likewise with superannuation as a separate fee to an artist fee. More needs to be done in this space to support creative workers in general. We always underpay ourselves to get a project over the line and it’s totally unacceptable. I was on an assessment board last year and the chair wanted to partially fund an application. I kept commenting that it meant the artists will not be able to pay themselves and my comments kept getting ignored. It was super frustrating. Also with arts residencies. I get so annoyed when they don’t allow partners and children. It’s so exclusionary. More advocacy needs to be done in this area.

The article you sent through brought up some interesting points. I am also fortunate to have a partner who I can financially lean on during quiet periods. This was huge when I decided to try my hand at solely freelancing. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. Am I sponsored by my husband? No. That feels so harsh. Financially supported in some ways but also I support him in other ways. The children and household responsibilities pretty much come down to me. We are lucky to be in the privileged position that I don’t have to work full-time and at the moment I have freelance jobs. That may not always be the case. When we decided to have children I was always going to go back to work full time. However, we moved to Germany when I was 6 months pregnant (for my partners job) so those plans did not quite work out. In Germany I freelanced and volunteered but never worked out childcare so always had H by my side. Then after two years when we moved back to Melbourne it was so hard to secure ongoing work. Everything in the arts was offered casual or contract. In hindsight it prepared me for going freelance but it was super frustrating at the time. I studied a semester of psychology as I seriously thought the only option was to change careers. Somehow it’s all worked out for the moment but I haven’t completely put away the idea/ necessity of changing careers at some point in the future. Have you seen the UK advertising that came in overnight pushing people who work in the arts to retrain in health or cyber? Wouldn’t put it past our government, I mean it comes back to your pointed out about upping the cost of an arts degree. Dangerous territory when you stop training critical thinkers…  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-government-advert-ballet-dancer-retrain-it-cyber-oliver-dowden-b987403.html

Covid, motherhood and economic privilege - to be honest I think it’s a total disaster. Our experience of remote learning was awful. There’s no way my six year old could do anything without me by her side. My nine year old was very stressed at the beginning but quickly adapted. The school work often relied on one parent being present to complete a task. My work was compromised as a result. We did two hours of school work in the morning. Had lunch. Then I worked all afternoon while the kids were either on screens (quiet and nice for me but totally guilt ridden) or screaming through the house and on the trampoline outside (not so quiet for me but at least they were moving). From my networks it seems that the teaching pretty much came down to mothers and that’s what happened in our house. I do know of parents who had nannies/tutors a few hours a day to do the schooling. I know of parents who sat their kids down with the school work in front of them each morning and said ‘good luck!’ and then went to their own work. I know parents who totally gave up with the home schooling because it was just too much. I’ve also heard the children that continued going to school as their parents were essential workers weren’t supported in the way you might assume being onsite. Teachers didn’t ‘teach’ while they were there, the children still had to go by the remote learning. However, our school was super flexible and their first priority was the family’s well-being. So as long as the children were happy, they were happy.  I consciously didn’t seek our new contracts during this time because I knew I couldn’t take on anymore work with the children home. Meanwhile my partners work commitments didn't changed. He’s simply moved his desk from an office in Footscray to our bedroom. I’ve felt like COVID has been another hit in the guts for working mothers. It’s presented another level of pressure that’s already so precarious, especially without the ability to have physical community as support and assistance. We haven’t been able to have the grandparents help out, or often the kids would go to a friend’s house after school so I could get a couple of hours more work done and we’d share that around a few families over a month so all the parents (mothers) had assistance. Though I think that us being able to work from home is a privilege. We’ve been able to keep our family at home and safe when others have had to go to face-to-face work putting themselves at risk. And my partner and I still have our jobs. The pressure on other families as the crisis deepens and lockdowns keep going on and work either stops or is precarious must be so scary. It’s really widened social and economic inequalities.  

Annika: Interesting to hear your experience on grant assessment panels. Unpaid labour. Doing it for the love. I wonder if what a tally of my free labour would look like if I combined the Sisyphean domestic/care grind with the creative/administrative load of an art practice? I am too scared to look! I like this line in a book I have on precarity and the labour of art: 'so you secretly support your artwork with your money job, even a high paying one. You are your own Sugar Daddy and trophy wife in a single package'[1]. The contortions you undergo on an economic level to keep making start to feel stretched beyond compare once you add 'parent' to that package.

I loved hearing you write about working with your kids and the double edge sword of quietude vs the knowledge they were relying on screens. I have a similar thing regarding the quiet but it is not that she has a screen (still too young) but that she is absorbed in something that will cost me time and money ( tv remote in the toilet, covering her torso in honey, squeezing all of my stupid expensive facial cleanser into the bath).

It is hard not to feel disheartened by the global tide of populism and anti-intellectualism threatening to drown critical thought and increase pre-existing inequities. But then I think of all artists who have been here before, making art on their kitchen tables, in hallways, making work in times of extreme social unrest, war and disaster. I like to think that perhaps this lack of funding, lack of regard, lack of support could yield new and more free and meaningful directions. If there is less focus on accumulating the trinkets of professionalism (impact, prestige, coverage, $$$$) we might forge new models of making that prioritize mutual support, play and experimentation. But then, I feel like that plays into the neoliberal narrative of reinvention.  All this language you encounter from ever-diminishing funding bodies framing art-making in post-covid times: pivot, reimagine, flourish, resilience etc. Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a grant that is just called 'exhaustion' and you don't need to provide metrics or audience numbers or nice photos of your outcomes.

I was part of a consultation process recently for a funding body to work out a post Covid direction. It was actually very well handled and expansive discussion. But at one point the question was thrown out to a bunch of artists and arts workers that was basically along the lines of 'are you thinking of giving up?'. It was bold, and surprising to hear, somehow refreshing and bleak at the same time. I keep rewriting my to-do list and shuffling my priorities. How do I find a new job now that universities are gutted? Do I try a completely new job outside of the arts?  How do I build a world that is emotionally and psychologically nourishing for my daughter amidst this chaos without completely relinquishing my precarious, exhausting, and enormously nourishing creative practice?

I keep coming back to this beautiful allegorical article by Sabrina Orah Mark that speaks to the litany of tasks one must achieve for the privilege of being paid and recognized as legitimate in one’s work, and the absurdity of those tasks amidst this tumult. This line was particularly striking:

     'The whole kingdom is spilling out of itself. There are holes everywhere. To the east, a pile of impossible tasks of my own making. To the west, a mountain of broken crowns I will melt and recast into a machete.[2]'

Olivia: Thank you for sharing the Sabrina Orah Mark article. It was beautiful and insightful. I’ve started going through her column Happily archive on The Paris Review, what a treasure trove! I’ve just finished The Fairy Tale Virus and this paragraph, oomph.

     ‘I keep thinking about the bat, the rumored mother of this Virus With A Crown On Its Head. I wonder what her fur smelled like, and what it felt like when she wrapped her wings around her thin body like a cloak. Did she swoop? Was she frightened? Was her tongue long? What must it be like, I wonder, to be the bat that started this cavalcade of coughing that shook a whole entire planet. But then I remember every story begins with a bat. If not for your mother there would be no you. So your mother is a bat, and my mother is a bat. I am a bat. You are a bat. My sons are bats. Every action we’ve ever taken is a bat. Every wildflower we ever picked is a bat. Sex is a bat and the soup you’ll eat tonight is a bat. This virus is a bat, and one day its cure will be a bat. Poems, even their crossed-out lines, are bats. Our lungs are bats. Death is a bat, and birth is a bat. The moon, the sun, and the stars in the sky are all bats. And when you cannot sleep at night that, too, is a bat. And when the president’s words fatten out of his mouth, those words are bats. And when you are afraid, your fear is a bat. And God, who created all the bats, is also a bat. And not believing in God is a bat, too’ [3].

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have a studio away from your home?

Annika: I do have a studio at home, a small one. It has been an absolute saviour during lockdown, but I am certainly itching to get back to a larger space – I have an external studio to return to eventually. I am pretty keen to get back to it at some stage, but it would mean the slipping out for work at night is a lot harder, which is basically how I got things done during the lockdown. This night work includes the image I made to accompany this conversation. It includes some recent motifs that have cropped up in my work, the sensuality of cloth and fabric and how loaded it becomes when represented through an algorithmic system like CGI: the back and forth from the origins of code as traced back through the textile industry and the Jacquard loom. And also, the use of the scaffold, I like this idea of a scaffold not holding something heavy but constraining something soft, buoyant and pliable. The twin purposes of support and restraint felt pertinent to discussions about mothering and care. It’s quite a visceral leaning-in to the grey area between an embrace and a restraint. It is also a quite personal sketch, that felt very representative of lockdown: an anxious, squeezed, claustrophobic quality. 

Annika Koops, After Cassatt, 2020

Olivia: Annika, your image is so powerful and poignant to this conversation about motherhood but also in a broader context too.  It speaks to me in the same way as the ‘bat’ paragraph above by Sabrina Orah. Our current climate suffocating, seeping into every inch of our lives. We are reaching and clawing trying to get a hold on something but the more we grasp the further we sink into the soft engulfing folds of fabric. The bat is everything, the bat is life.  It’s the climate crisis, the pandemic, politics, racism, social inequities, etc. and how do we navigate our way out before we simply get swallowed up?

Annika: The late great John Berger talked about claustrophobia not as caused by overcrowding, but by the ‘lack of any continuity existing between one action and the next that is close enough to be touching it. It is this that is hell’. He talks about finding ‘pockets of resistance’ within the unbearable cacophony, such as the ‘action of approach: of measuring distances and walking towards’. This, he says, will lead to ‘collaborations which deny discontinuity’[4].One foot in front of the other, with others, towards a chosen destination. Simple right? 

[1] Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, Are You Working Too Much? : Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art,E-Flux Journal (Berlin: Berlin : Sternberg Press, 2011).p.7
[2] Sabrina Orah Mark, "Fuck the Bread, the Bread Is Over," The Paris Review 2020, accessed 08/09/2020, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/07/fuck-the-bread-the-bread-is-over/.
Mark, Sabrina Orah. "The Fairy-Tale Cirus". The Paris Review 2020. Accessed 04/11/2020. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/04/06/the-fairytale-virus/#more-144138
John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket(New York: New York : Vintage International, 2003).p.214

Annika Koops is a Naarm (Melbourne) based artist working between painting and digital media. Recent work charts the porosity of boundaries between physical and virtual spaces, objects, and persona. Her images consider how subjectivity may be distilled and reformatted in the digital realm. 3D models that signify traces of human presence are employed within her work to explore the hermetically sealed reverie of CGI and the ethereal ontological status of the objects within it.

She has been the recipient of a number of significant grants and prizes including Australia Council Arts Projects for Individuals and Groups, Australia Council British School, Rome Residency, The Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Traveling Fellowship, and an Australian Postgraduate Award. She has been invited to participate in international exhibitions such as Roman Remains, Transition Gallery, London, and the inaugural Bristol Biennial as well as having exhibited at a range of public institutions, artist-run spaces and private galleries in Australia.

She has undertaken National and International residencies, most recently as a visiting fellow with UNSW Art and Design (2020). Her work is included in significant Australian public collections such as Art Bank, MONA Hobart and The University of Melbourne Collection. She is represented by Bett Gallery, Hobart.