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Tony Albert is inviting you to collaborate on an artwork – and you can take it home

Written by
Ben Neutze

It's not every day you have the chance to put pencil to paper and unleash your own artistic expression alongside one of the country's leading artists. But Sydney artist Tony Albert is inviting even the least artistically-inclined among us to join him in a confessional booth and create an original artwork at the opening night of this year's Sydney Contemporary on September 12.

In the performance, he sits hidden inside a booth (somewhere between an old-style photo booth and a confessional) and collaborates with whoever sits on the other side. When the artwork is done – and Albert gets to decide – he'll sign it and send it back to his collaborator, who can take it home.

We asked Albert a few questions about the work's inspirations and just how well your average non-artist goes at conveying ideas without any kind of language.

This is your first foray into performance. How did you form the idea?
The idea for 'Confessions' is something that has been evolving in my mind overtime. Dark MOFO (where the work debuted) was the perfect opportunity to experiment and engage in performance and explore the potentialities of non-verbal communication. 'Confessions' looks at how we convey abstract ideas, and non-verbal conversations, and the play between visibility and invisibility. The performance was also an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and try something totally out of the box. I am excited to bring the work to a new audience at Sydney Contemporary. 

Obviously a confessional booth brings to mind Catholicism. Why did you want to explore the idea of confessions?
I grew up within the Catholic Church myself and I wanted to reveal the potential that the act of confession allows by eliminating visual and auditory barriers from the exchange including complications around race, gender, age or sexuality. It also gave me the opportunity to play with the design of a confessional booth, so I explored a number of options as well as childhood memories.

The booth is quite playful – almost like an old-style photo booth. How important is this intimate environment to the work?
The intimate space within the booth specifically references the Catholic confessional. I think that creating an environment like this allowed people to really open up. Participants seemed to naturally connect with the idea of the Catholic Church’s ‘Seal of Confession’ – where it is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents. The booth became a private and safe space for people to unburden their sins, while at the same time playfully participating in collaborative performance. Of course there is no verbal and no text communication so you really have to challenge yourself as a participant.

Tony Albert. Photograph: Saul Steed.

Can you tell us a little bit about how it works in practice?
People would enter the booth one at a time, sit down, and I would slide a single sheet of specially designed paper through a very small window. The paper had some initial markings made by me to begin the communication. It was passed back and forth, each of us mark-making. When I believe the conversation is completed, I sign the paper and feed it back through to the participant. They then co-sign as the collaborator leaving with their own artwork to keep.

Did any particular interactions surprise you when you did the work in Dark Mofo?
Because it was my first time performing, I was super nervous but very surprised by everyone’s creativity. Some people would not only draw, but also fold and tear the paper. I think everyone surprised and inspired me in one way or another.

Obviously as a professional artist, you're very good at conveying ideas through symbols and imagery, but are most audiences able to convey much through the marks they make?
The booth had instructions on the exterior to give people an idea of how it would work before entering. The most important of which was that "verbal communication and the use of written text is not allowed". This is definitely something that some participants struggled with. It is not easy but crucial to the performance. I believe all people love to be creative and challenge themselves. It was up to me to interpret their drawings. I also encouraged people to be very abstract if they wanted. People should not be discouraged by their artistic capabilities, the key was just getting in there and giving it a go.

Tony Albert will be performing 'Confessions' at the opening night of Sydney Contemporary on Thursday September 12 from 6pm. Tony will also be showing new works with Sullivan+Strumpf at Sydney Contemporary, and is creating an immersive artist suite at Sofitel Darling Harbour. 

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