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Public scribes and private encounters / Scribe, FOLA Melbourne 2016

by Theron Schmidt

Similar to The International Archive of Things Left Unsaid, the projectScribe, led by

Australian artist and curator  Leisa Shelton, collects anonymous experiences from

public contributors. But there are two significant differences. The first of these is

that the collections take place not by audio-recording, but in a face-to-face,

time-delimited session with a designated ‘scribe’ who listens, converses, and records

the experience in writing.


The writing session is framed by carefully aestheticised

details: the session takes place over a customized, hand-crafted, portable writing desk;

the contributor is anonymized and his or her designated number is recorded inside a

bureaucratic stamp; and the scribe is identified by some kind of self-nominated

archetype — e.g. The Maker, The Academic, The Researcher, The Drawer, The Evaluator,

The Writer, The Cynic.


In this way, the act of transcription is foregrounded as also a

transformation: not the transparent capture of thoughts and experiences, but a

transaction, a service, an act of labour that is shaped by the properties of the room

and the roles being played. Conversing, listening, writing, testifying… even where the

technology is analogue, not digital, this is a mediated encounter in which the media

being used is crucial (and visible) in shaping what is voiced and what is written down.

The second distinguishing feature is that Scribe is situated within the context of an art festival—in its first iteration, at Melbourne’s Artshouse as part of the city-wide Festival of Live Art. So, at first glance, it seems to function similarly to an audience-feedback or evaluation framework, in that the subject matter at-hand is the other artistic work on display. But unlike the forms that these evaluations typically take, there are not pre-determined questions or criteria; and the experience is held by the attendant scribe, opening a space for wandering associations and reflections that may include details of the respondent’s personal life, thoughts about the building or the part of town, and other curiosities that might arise. In this way, it collects what might be described as an ‘affective archive’, to borrow the concept from the Performance Studies International Regional Cluster organized in 2010 by Marco Pustianaz, Giulia Palladini, and Annalisa Sacchi, in which, as those organizers would later reflect, ‘What gets remembered will mostly be unmemorable.’2

In the Melbourne iteration of Scribe, I was invited to observe and participate as writer-in-residence. One of the conditions of participation (for both contributor and scribe) is that the anonymous texts are freely available for re-use and circulation, and in my discussion with the Scribe artists we became interested in extending these private exchanges into public space: selecting short excerpts and chalking them onto walls and pavements, making visible both the content and also the act of writing itself. In this way, the walls and sidewalks became animated with anonymous voices, identified only by number, speaking back to the events contained within them. There were also other acts of translation: into Braille, and through the production of limited-edition handmade books. As my final gesture as writer-in-residence, I sifted through the collected documents (now carefully stored in archival boxes), selecting and collating fragments of experience to form this polyvocal accumulation:



I am writing this because I volunteered myself. I am writing this because it felt important to me that these words be written down. Because it felt important to me that some words were written down. Because these may not be all the words but because these are the words that I was able to write down in the time and space that was designated.

I am writing this because I have a friend who’s in town for the weekend (#044). Because there was a lot going on in the moment. Because it wasn’t entirely easy to focus on the artwork itself (#026). Because it’s impossible to re-create the internal feeling that caused that moment in me that was captured (#005). Because you asked me what I thought and this is what I was able to say. Because sometimes I get lost in the lighting (#056). Because you can smell green when you walk in (#015). Because the world was so large (#003). Because of that sense of shocked tingling of dizziness (#028). Because it felt like a rope punctuated by knots I could hold (#012). Because these words are now the knots of what is left over, and as I pass the rope, the knots move between my hands and yours. Because this is the kind of experience I want (#008).

I am writing this because the experience is never mine alone. Because I kept having flashbacks to something, like you have to learn how to approach people(#031). Because I’m not good at speaking with strangers. Because I tend not to join in but rather listen (#053). Because you asked me to, and I accepted, and somewhere in-between it became less clear whether this was my idea or yours. Because my question is, what is the object that is created? Because if the work is a democratic gesture, what does your vote mean? (#001) Because I can just say a thought and then it will become words; it’s like magic (#015). Because

      it’s almost

                                 like a


                                                                               but without being face to face (#038).

I am writing this because I feel strongly about this. Because I’ve been left with an overwhelming experience of women being better at making live art than men (#004). Because I felt really beautiful in that space and I haven’t been feeling that way for a while (#032). Because I’ve kind of quit art (#037). Because I couldn’t help but see super-imposed histories placed upon images that happen in the present (#048). Because I don’t know if that is quintessentially Australian (#056). Because I was wondering whether the girls in the audience were looking at his penis. Because I was (#061). Because I feel the weight of my

H            I            S            T            O            R            Y       (#039).

I am writing this because I wanted to be included (#043). Because I wanted to mix my thoughts with yours. Because I wanted to be up-close (#043). Because I wanted to be intimate (#043). Because I wanted you to carry away a little piece of me. Because I wanted to be able to see the dance (#043). Because I wanted to touch your skin.

I am writing this because I wanted to leave an inscription.

Original source:



Letter to 100 Australian Artists / Spill Festival, London 2011

April 24th, 2012

In March 2011, I was offered the task by the artist director of  Spill Festival Robert Pacitti, to speak on ‘the State of the Arts in Australia’, during my time at the Festival.
In response to what initially felt like a daunting request, I sought a form which could enable what I felt were the key aspects that needed representation – the diversity, transdisciplinarity and potent nature of what I perceive Arts in Australia to be.

Focused on these considerations, I developed this project.

It is a way to create amplification to what would have been an otherwise singular perspective. It is also representative of a core aspect of my own practice, which focuses on strategies to enable  dialogue between artists, their work and the cultures and communities who engage or are engaged by this work.

The initial invitation was first sent out to 100 Australian Artists from cafes around Paris on the 30th of April.

These are the responses received, as of 12pm on the 19th of April,when this project was presented as part of the Think Tank program for Spill Festival at the Barbican, London.

My thanks to all the artists who were curious and engaged enough with this question and their place within the Arts in Australia to respond.


LEISA SHELTON – initiating artist.

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