A conversation between Olivia Poloni and Olga Bennett (October - November 2020) 

Olivia: Your practice interrogates ideas around materiality and process. What draws you to this kind of experimentation?

Olga: My interest in materiality and process comes from my desire to be surprised by the work that comes out of my studio. Experimental approach allows for that to happen. This means that ideas and concerns, that I am not necessarily conscious of, can surface and be explored. I believe this makes for a more interesting work as a result. This applies to working with both physical materials and digital images—in the latter case I often play around with simple algorithms and scripts to harness intriguing accidents that are almost inevitable when working in the darkroom.
I also write as a part of my practice, and sometimes I like to think about the visual works operating in a similar way to language. For instance, material transformation and processes, especially in photography, can offer rich visual metaphors for conceptual ideas around the medium, the use of images more widely, and the constructed nature of knowledge we have of the past and present, making these ideas visible and present in a more immediate way then when they are expressed in words.

Photographic technologies and materials themselves inevitably reflect believes and ideologies that shaped them, as well as
pointing to the ways they were and continue to be used. Consciously or not, most viewers are aware of these, through their knowledge of historical documents and also their family photographs or films. I often choose to combine materials and processes that allude to different episodes of these histories within my works.

I am including this image as an example of a 'surprise' that emerged through my relinquishing control and simply playing with some digital images. The pots, photographed on the shelf, has been transformed into shapes that are reminiscent of other objects.

Olga Bennett, Untitled.jpg, 2017, digital image

Olivia: I’m drawn to the way you talk about processes and materials having a universal knowledge and history that resonates with viewer interpretations. And love the way you use the word ‘episodes’ to talk about histories. I’m intrigued by how emotional memory is vulnerable. Memory is reconstructed. We bring our own experience and knowledge when we reconstruct it, and the retelling changes over time as we do. Like reading images. I like the idea of understand this as ‘episodes'. Can you talk more about what you mean when you use the word ‘episodes’?

Olga: I borrow the word 'episode' from Lauren Berlant who brings exquisite attention to how we speak about the experience, both past and present. In Cruel Optimism, she suggests that terms like ‘situation’ and ‘episode’ denotes the instances of what she calls ‘unforeclosed’ experience, in difference to ‘event’ defined through its impact and a discrete time-frame. [1] In the past, I would have probably used the word ‘story’, without giving it too much thought, but recently I have been more concious of  how narrative, or story, are used to turn the past into something that is accounted for, made sense of, ‘foreclosed’. If we compare it to what we know about memories, the act of turning an episode into a story is, perhaps, somewhat similar to the process of consolidation.

Archives and collections of images and documents are repositories of our collective memories, and just like our private memories, they could be revisited, lifted up from the store, revised. Historical and archival images often come with a ‘reading’ or story attached, which is why I am drawn to working with them experimentally, creating circumstances that allow for previously overlooked or speculative interpretations to come up to the surface. When it comes to signification, we know images to be liquid, malleable, but prone to being pinned down by language, although this dichotomy only goes so far, as a language too doesn’t have to hold meanings in place. I am currently very much interested in exploring various genres across visual and linguistic registers that allow for a certain fluidity and openness.

The work that I am attaching today re-imagines my grandfather’s autobiographic note as a graphic score.

Olga Bennett, A score for twenty-something years you were so quiet (that I barely remember your voice or any words you’ve spoken), 2018-2020, gelatine silver print

Olivia: I’m curious about the genres you mention 'across visual and linguistic registers that allow for a certain fluidity' Are you open to giving a few examples or more detail on this?

Olga: I've been experimenting with bringing images and words together in various ways, seeing what hybrid forms emerge. The works that came out of this experimentation can be variously described as concrete poetry, language-based notations and graphic scores. I like to think of them all as forms of notation, as it is a term that is already used across many disciplines and takes on many meanings:

Notation, noun.
1: annotation, note

2a: the act, process, method, or an instance of representing by a system or set of marks, signs, figures, or characters

  b: a system of characters, symbols, or abbreviated expressions used in an art or science or in mathematics or logic to express technical facts or quantities [2]

Fields of music and dance both have established systems of notation and rich traditions of work created outside of them, such as the use of idiosyncratic graphic scores and written instructions for music composition. My understanding of notation is particularly influenced by my research into the work of the Fluxus artists and composers—members of a loosely defined network centred around John Cage in the 1960s—who embraced notation as a conceptual medium in its own right. Fluxus scores take the form of objects, images, or texts, and while they are intended for interpretation by a performer or audience members, they often deliberately invite a multiplicity of possible readings or performances, or in some cases, allude to the complete impossibility of any performance at all. So I think a score is a form that can operate against the conventions of reading and interpretation.

Another example that comes to mind is a form Anne Carson uses to record her translations of Sappho’s lyric poetry that survives only on fragmented and damaged papyrus and in citations included in other ancient texts. Carson uses square brackets to indicate damaged surface and illegible parts of the original, opening the text to the possibilities of interpretation, while making clear that the reader’s knowledge will remain lacking. She writes: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it’ and ‘imply a free space of imaginal adventure.’[3] I am really inspired by her words and I think they can be applied to how we approach history in general.

LaMonte Young was one of the composers associated with Fluxus for a period of time.
LaMonte Young, Composition 1960 #9, 1960

Anne Carson If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 2003, page 47


Olga Bennett Untitled, 2018, bronze, prototypes for the work in progress

Olga Bennett,  Scores for talking to butterflies and moth (after Warburg), 2020, ink on paper, preparatory drawing for a work in progress

Olivia: Have you any ideas around the work you will present at the Image Collective exhibition at Blindside next year? Will it further this interest?

Olga: Most likely! I am hoping to be able to exhibit a short film featuring visual scores that I made in response to my research into Aby Warburg's work—a German art historian working at the beginning of 20th century, who created Mnemosyne Atlas, attempting to record 'migration' and transfiguration of images, gestures, and symbols across time and space and between cultures. The first few images from the film in progress will also be included in the upcoming Image Collective publication released November 2020.

Olga Bennett, Scores for talking to butterflies and moths, 2020, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, still from a work in progress

Olga Bennett is an artist and researcher from Russia currently living and working in Narrm. She has graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours) from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2017 and exhibited at Bus Projects, CAVES, Center for Contemporary Photography, The Substation, KINGS Artist-Run, Monash Gallery of Art, C3 Contemporary, LON and Margaret Lawrence galleries (all in Melbourne), COMA gallery (Sydney), CalArts gallery (Los Angeles) and gallery Kiitos (Japan). In 2019, Bennett completed a residency at Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium. Her recent body of work considers how experiences of physical and emotional vulnerability are reflected in images and words.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011)
[2] “Notation,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, n.d., accessed May 30, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/notation
[3] Sappho and Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 1st Vintage Books ed. (Vintage Books, 2003), xi