Art & Design PhD student val smith has been named as a 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate for their contribution to performing arts in New Zealand.
val is a choreographic artist and community educator of 20 years, and has presented work internationally and across Aotearoa. Their work investigates gender, sexuality, perception and participation through performance art.
They feel very proud of this award as an acknowledgement of their work.
They say, “This Arts Foundation award is a huge support to me as an artist, as I'm currently undertaking a practice-led PhD at AUT. It is a huge honour.”
“It honestly makes me feel uplifted and inspired to continue sharing and developing my practice. My focus has been around building performance communities and queer spaces, and I want to keep doing that, and to support experimental dance and performance forms in Aotearoa.”
val hopes that the more marginalised local LGBTQIA+ art communities in Aotearoa will be enabled to thrive through resources and funding, particularly for independent practitioners.
They say, “exploring the intersections between gender, sexuality and life through my art practice has been a real space of joy for me, a creative space that has allowed me to connect with other queer artists, and build community and a feeling of belonging.”
Read below for an Arts Foundation interview with val about their work.
val smith. Image by Nan Sirisamphan
Tell us about exploring gender and sexuality in your art practice.
Gender and sexuality are quite entangled for me, but for some people, they’re separate realities. Exploring that entanglement through my art practice has been a real place of joy. It is a creative space that has allowed me to connect with other artists who are also working around genders and sexualities. It's provided me with a way to build connection, community and a feeling of belonging that sits outside of my biological family, and that's been huge for me.
What was your experience of your education in dance?
I finished an undergrad degree at Unitec in contemporary dance in 2000. I'd previously been doing a lot of politically motivated performance and political street theatre through The Random Trollops (anarchist feminist scene in Auckland) and the McGillicuddy Serious Party. I loved it and I wanted to develop my skills in performance. Hence Unitec.
When I eventually found my way onto this contemporary dance course I felt like I’d met my people. It was really amazing coming together with these people who were creative but also thinking politically in really interesting ways. Heaps of us were feminists, and witchy. I felt lucky to be together with other people who were artists simply wanting to find our own way in the world somehow.
What is your art form?
I might use the word transdisciplinary. I'm focused on performance, but writing is a big part of my practice and collaboration. I like playing with language for the reader performatively on the page, thinking about the page as a performance space.
I've been developing an openended manifesto with my collaborator Richard Orjis, bttm methodology. We have a practice of reading the manifesto in different contexts, inviting people to read with us and perform it in their own way. It's long - but I'll read a little section of it.
#1. Floating islands of peoples sailors. Mermaids
#2. Sticks. Faggots. Witches.
#4. It's not about off the grid. It's about IN the grid
#5. Rotting the system through fungal power
#6. Queer bombing. Queer destruction. Queer, after the tsunami
Suicidal kauri trees
Blood and bone fertiliser
Meeting / Meating friends over plant-based drinks
Learning to love shame, plastics and viruses
Richard and I also run Queer Reading Group here at AUT and have made a point of trying to create a supportive social space for younger queer and transgender diverse artists to come and meet, as well as an opportunity to discuss theories and texts.
Have you published your writing before in a public space?
Writing does have a history because the practice of my long term collaborator in Dance Studies, Alys Longley, moves between writing and moving in a studio context. So, we've done a lot of collaborative projects which lead to performance events and publishing. And I've done a bunch of reviews online and put some work-in-progress pieces on my webpage.
But bttm methodology is more like a set of principles that we can use as a guideline for making work and learning spaces, so I think it's different. It's an open-source document, where people can edit and add to it live, so it's trying to include other voices and it's open to where it might go.
What is the intention of the Bottom Manifesto?
It emerged out of a conversation. Richard and I were spending a lot of time together walking through Albert Park and talking about queer histories. The flavour of our conversation emerged in a way that we thought would be interesting to pursue. So in some ways Bottom Manifesto never started with an outcome in mind, but when we look at it now it is a guideline for thinking about queer art-making, queer pedagogy, or community-building, and has implications that we think are be interesting to share.
You recently received a scholarship to go to Vienna.
Yes, it's a week-long residency with a symposium at the tail-end. I'm using bttm methodology as a framework for developing a somatic practice while I'm there. I'm coming with ideas, bits and pieces, and I have the week to work with a group of people to see what emerges, then that will be presented at the symposium during an all-night event with back-to-back presentations and workshops. I will end up doing some sort of performative thing. I don't exactly know what yet.
You're also going to Ireland.
I've got a week in Ireland, which is where my father's ancestral lineage connects back too. As part of the work I've been developing through my PhD, I've been channelling or attuning with oak trees and acorns here on this land (Ngati Whatua Orakei) and thinking about my own whiteness and settler colonial policy. As a white person here, my practice is a lot about listening and attuning with places, people, plants and animals, but in terms of the oak trees, it's a way for me to connect directly with my ancestral lands. So the DNA connection, somehow feels significant for me.
When I'm in Ireland, I'm going to do a road trip for a week and connect with oak trees and sacred sites through performative activations. I'm not performing for humans, but performing for the space, building a relationship with the sites to see what emerges. There will be writing, photography and video elements. It's my first opportunity to connect with the land and my bloodlines, so it feels really important. It's got a spacious feeling about it. I've done a bunch of work leading up to it, so I can rock up, be there and see where the practice leads me.
A lot of queer people have an experience of feeling like you don't belong, or you don't fit, especially if there's a disconnect with your biological family. This way of attuning with the land gives me the ability to belong in the moment – it doesn't matter where I am, connecting with the land is a way to feel like I have a place to stand, no matter who, or what you are. Whilst acknowledging Tangata Whenua, as protectors of the land.
Trans-ancestors or queer-ancestors is a bit of a buzzword coming up a lot with artists that I'm looking at at the moment, finding ways to connect with those queer lineages to ground yourself. I really like it, the invisible stories, the hidden ones, all of that.
Why did you become an artist?
I used to be really into drawing as a kid. I remember doing colouring-in competitions and getting prizes, but I wouldn't follow the lines on the page, I just put stuff in a drawing. That rebellious thing came in early.
I was one of those kids at high school who was in the art room all the time. I loved it. It gave me a place where I felt like I could be myself. Something about art teachers, they were so supportive, they encouraged me to express myself, and I think I had a lot of feelings to work through, hahaha. It gave me a way to do something active that felt right for my brain, I feel like art suits the way my mind thinks, it's easy - it just feels natural.
I've tried other things like normal jobs, but I just kept getting drawn back into art and now I almost feel like it would be disrespectful not to continue art now because I've had so many people and institutions support me and encourage me. It doesn't feel like a duty, but it feels just so right for me right now.