10 Minutes with Kate McMillan

Dr Kate McMillan is an artist based in London. She works across media including film, sound, installation, sculpture, and performance. Her work addresses a number of key ideas including the role of art in attending to impacts of the Anthropocene, lost and systemically forgotten histories of women, and the residue of colonial violence in the present. In addition to her practice, McMillan also addresses these issues in her activist and written work. She is the author of the annual report ‘Representation of Female Artists in Britain’ commissioned by the Freelands Foundation. Her recent academic monograph ‘Contemporary Art & Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes: Empire of Islands’ (2019, Palgrave Macmillan) explored the work of a number of first nation female artists from the global south, whose work attends to the aftermath of colonial violence in contemporary life. McMillan is currently a Lecturer in Contemporary Art at King’s College, London. More of her work can be viewed here: www.katemcmillan.net 

For this edition Huma Kabakci interviews Kate McMillan about the time they met, her practice and interests, her preferred medium to work with and more.

First I want to go back to the time how we first met and how I came across your work through social media. Have you had more connections similar to ours since you moved back to London from Perth, Australia? 

What I love about living in London, is you never know what or who is around the corner. The predictability of the future is perhaps what drove us to leave Australia in the first place. It is a harder life living in London in many ways – less time in particular. But for now, the opportunity to meet new people and be exposed to new ideas and ways of working is still fresh and exciting after eight years. I love that we connected on Instagram, and yes, I do still connect with many people this way!

Installation views, ‘The Past is Singing in my Teeth’ 2017
Kunsthaus Bethanian, Berlin. Touring to Civic Room, Glasgow and Edinburgh Festival (2018)
2 channel film, textiles, sound (by Cat Hope), performance (by percussionist Louise Devenish), sculptures

Your artistic interest lies in the Anthropocene, cultural memory and female histories, can you talk a bit more about how these are incorporated within your practice? 

Perhaps one of the great things that artists do differently from other people, is we blackbird across so many disciplines, histories and mediums. Everything is up for grabs. I am excited by knowledge – it drives my practice, and my teaching. Growing up in Australia and the awareness of colonial violence frames my relationship with the landscape and history. These are formative experiences, and I suspect quite different for people who grew up in Europe. What connects all the ideas in my work, as well as my values as a person and my gender research, is the notion that important voices, for all sorts of reasons, get silenced. Currently we are living in a very precarious world, and I feel that the solutions lie in listening to those voices that have been silenced – women, first nations peoples and other marginalised groups. I developed a concept that informs my practice called ‘listening with our feet’. It arises from the listening practices of the Whadjuk Nyoongar community where I grew up; years of collaborating with sound artists who have taught me to ‘listen’ and an awareness of the climate emergency.  Recentering place-based, creative engagement with ‘quiet’ stories is a solution to almost everything we currently face. 

Would you say your preferred medium to work with is? 

In general, I don’t confine myself to any particular medium. Every two or so years I present a large-scale immersive exhibition, but this arises from a studio practice of sewing, photography, drawing and sculpture. I collect sound and moving images, as well as found objects and still images. Ultimately, I am driven by the experience I want to share with my audiences. I want to bring magic and emotion into people’s lives; I want my work to embed itself in their bodies and memories. Therefore, I am often drawn to the mediums of sound and moving image, presented alongside objects. In my most recent projects, I have used my sculptures as percussion instruments for the score, as well as props in the films. I like objects that are slippery. 

What has been your biggest but nicest distraction during the pandemic and the ever-growing global socio-political, ecological upheaval? 

We have a lock-down puppy called Miro. He has saved us all. Sitting and playing with a puppy makes all your worries fall away. It has been enormously beneficial for my three teens too. Miro makes us get up and go for walks every day, to be present in the world and observe the seasons changing. He is my shadow. He is sleeping at my feet as I write this.

You have been carrying out research and contributing immensely on the Freelands Foundation’s Representation of Female Artists in Britain Report for two consecutive years. How did it come about and what have you learned during the process? 

I’ve been researching gender in the art world since 2016. In 2018 I was presenting on a panel organised by Marcelle Joseph about some quantitative research I had been doing on commercial galleries in London. Melanie Cassoff, the managing director of Freelands Foundation was also on the panel and she asked me to author the next report. My earlier research had been sparked by an appalling Instagram post by Lisson Gallery on the occasion of the inaugural opening of their New York Gallery that showcased a group of male artists (as well as Carmen Herrera), titled ‘just some of our artists’. As our cultural ecology increasingly relies on the commercial sector to subsidise dwindling government expenditure on the arts, the gender of artists represented by commercial galleries really matters. The findings in the Freelands Foundation report is an important reminder that progress is slow, and rarely linear.

Installation view Instructions for Another Future (my feet are ears), 2018
Rohkunstbau Festival, Schloss Liberose, curated by Mark Gizbourne

You teach alongside practicing as an artist? Do you see these two roles feeding each other? 

I love teaching, and I think I am pretty good at. I teach MA students about contemporary art. I hope my students go out and change the world, and that thought motivates me every day. I think we must all establish creative, socially just lives and teaching is part of giving back to society. I like working with people, which is why much of my art is collaborative. I think I would get lonely if it was just me in the studio every day. My practice is definitely invigorated by my teaching, but also by being a mother and living in a big dynamic city like London.

Which five words would you choose to describe your practice?

Hard question! Intense, poetic, considered, layered, immersive.

What are you reading at the moment? 

I am usually reading two or three books at once. At the moment I’m reading ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ by Doireann Ní Ghríofa; ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ by Haruki Murakami and I’m re-reading ‘The Obstacle Race’ by Germaine Greer. I’m also reading (marking!) a lot of essays on contemporary art and globalisation.