Katie Sfetkidis | The Saturday newspaper

Katie Sfetkidis is a multidisciplinary artist and lighting designer. Her work explores feminist and political histories and their impact on the contemporary lives of women, and she is interested in the role of the artist in public life. His most notable public works of art include A feminist poster projectt (2021); Dear Minister (2019) and The mayor’s plan (2018). In 2020 Katie was appointed as a Feminist Emissary for the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, where her work is currently on display at PRESENT / MEMORYan exhibition of new works based on interviews with Victorian women and non-binary people.

She chose to discuss Donna Gottschalk holds a poster at Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade, New York 1970 by Diana Davis.

Tell me about this job.

This photograph shows a young woman at a demonstration for gay rights in New York. I’ve pinned it in my studio for about five or six years now. He traveled with me through all the different studios I had at that time; I always pin it wherever I work.

I came across it while reading an interview with Sharon Hayes, an American artist who re-enacts protest movements, and I had always thought it was Hayes on the photograph reconstructing a protest scene. But it’s a photo of Donna Gottschalk. Hayes became fascinated with the original image and used the text of the sign as the title of one of her works from 2008.

There are several layers of authorship here: Diana Davies as the photographer, Donna Gottschalk as the subject/author of the sign, then Sharon Hayes’ use of the sign in her work, what is your point of contact with him?

Recently I realized that not only wasn’t Hayes in the photo, but the woman in the photo was also an artist in her own right, a lesbian photographer who documented gay rights movements and queer culture in America in the 60s and 70s. I thought about all those layers of that image alongside my own changing relationship with it over time.

There’s a woman in the background looking at her completely shocked, like “What are you doing?!” There’s something about that look that also played into my assumption that it was a performance, like a reaction from the audience. It reminded me of the responses I’ve had at my own work.

Do you take protest photos yourself?

No, but I collect protest photos, and it’s an art form that has always appealed to me. I attend rallies and live in the CBD so it’s part of everyday life and I’m interested in the community aspect of it. But then, in my own work, I always want to be alone. Sharon Hayes’ work interested and influenced me because she is interested in the history of protest movements, but she also practices her work as a solo actress. This says a lot about my own activism and artistic work.

I think a lot about protesting and what it means now. I think that has really changed. The protest photographs feel so ubiquitous; everyone takes a picture and uploads it. Maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia in me for those other moments in time – they feel very precious because they exist in a different context, outside of social media.

How does this older protest aesthetic in photography influence your practice?

Sharon Hayes says her work is somewhere between performance and action, and I really identify with that. I don’t think so much about aesthetics, although I love how text and signs can be used to disrupt or send a message. It’s also playful and joyful, there’s a little wink and nod to something else that I’m trying to emulate. The balance between trying to be sincere about something and political, but also being playful, is important.

I think my work was very camp, I used to play a bunch of weird characters in my work, and I think that’s something that slowly stripped away. I realized that I don’t need this character anymore, I can just be myself. When I did The mayor’s plan, it was supposed to be funny, but I also did it with the utmost sincerity. I never made fun of anyone, I presented myself as being there, as being serious about what I do, but there was also something inherently funny about it because I was never going to win. People were always so surprised that I could speak coherently in public but that’s what artists do all the time, we get talked about.

Let’s talk more about Sharon Hayes. When you look at his works, you are no longer sure what you are witnessing, whether it is real or not.

Sharon influences me conceptually. She talks about her reluctance to concede the space of politics to politicians and journalists and her belief that artists have a role to play. This philosophy resonates with me. I don’t want my work to exist only in the world of art, I want to exist as an artist in the world of politics and institutions and in the streets. I like this questioning of these boundaries between art and activism and how they relate to each other in his work.

Like Hayes, I have also explored performative activist work before. I did a project where I ran for mayor a few years ago. The campaign lasted six weeks. During that time, I never told anyone it was a work of art. I just said, I’m here as an artist and as a real contestant, because I didn’t want people to suddenly think this was a joke. I thought if I had said it was a work of art, everyone would think I was kidding. The language you use can really change the meaning.

Sharon Hayes talks about her work not as a performance but as an action. Likewise, this election campaign that I led was an action, but it is also a work of art. Hayes talked about other public works she has done where she performed using protest signs. She said she never told anyone she was an artist during these performances. She always talked about being an artist instead.

I did some performances for A feminist poster project where I played with that border too. I made feminist posters that I attached to backpacks and corkboards, and a group of us walked around town with them. It really makes people stop and ask questions. When people see you and read the text, it’s kind of in the realm of their understanding. Once they’ve had a second take, they’re like, wait a minute, this isn’t quite what we’re expecting to see, and it’s hard to explain to them without saying this is a performance. Language, in particular, really shapes how people then perceive a work.

I think I’ll keep looking at this image, and my relationship with it will continue to evolve over time as I continue to sit with it.

This article first appeared in the Saturday Paper print edition on March 5, 2022 as “Katie Sfetkidis”.

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