Circling and Broaching the Performative Process of Jewellery

Roseanne Bartley
Three projects explore new terrain for jewellery as a performative practice

Identity is a common metaphor for contemporary jewellery. Intimate in scale and worn in close proximity or relation to the body, jewellery is an ideal format for representations of the self. As an undergraduate student, one piece of wisdom imparted to me was to never allow myself to over-invest a piece with personal meaning/s. The rationale that followed was that an emotionally loaded piece disavowed the viewer or wearer's own response and would render it unwearable. The object, representing an emotively charged event or statement would therefore be undesirable to the other, the ‘not me', wearer.

This advice was given in good faith, however I have felt compelled to test it out as it suggested to me that the relationship between maker, object and viewer is defined by constraints that are artificially applied. Further evidence of social boundaries exist within jewellery practice: ‘Don't touch' is one example and there are many more.

In this paper I want to discuss how three jewellery projects involved concrete social experiences that disrupted the formality of these relational boundaries. I will discuss an emerging method of practice that encompasses a performative process, a challenge to the look but don't touch speak or broach, and explore how this modality shapes new spectrums of enquiry and discussion.

The projects that I will refer to all occurred in Melbourne, a city known for its cultural vibrancy, City Rings by Caz Guiney (2003), Ring Cycle by Susan Cohn (2004) and Culturing the Body by Roseanne Bartley (2002). In varied and unique ways each of these projects captured an aspect of the city, the jeweller's craft was not finalised in the composed environment of the studio but rather taken out onto the streets where it was subject to public interaction, engagement and intervention. This performative aspect was central to the work being created.

I will speak about the projects in the order they occurred the first of which was ‘Culturing the Body'. This project evolved from an initial enquiry into the materiality of text, an exploration of how meaning can be signified through the visible treatment of a word and its relationship to an object. I began testing words on labels, a simple yet symbolic form, and made two series titled ‘Materialising the UnAustralian' and ‘Simulated Expressions of Regret'. I chose these words because I was interested in the politics surrounding their public use, it was during the period leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, an intense period of national branding against a backdrop of social issues such as reconciliation. Embossed on silver labels the selection of type font represented the multiple inflections of meaning found in their frequent publicised use. Friends and acquaintances drawn to the idea tested out the experience of labelling themselves, they took photos and kept records of their experiences. In their feedback the label wearers described moments of heightened awareness, of being observed or moving out of their comfort zone and how their sense of identity was affected by the shifting trends of public language.

The cultural environment of Australia continued to be determined by what Martin Krygier describes as a ‘rhetoric of reaction'. Krygier explains the rhetoric of reaction as a ‘device not intended to further the flow of conversation of citizens, but to dam it up or redirect it into un-threatening channels.' (Martin Krygier 2005 radio national) Australian cultural/political capital is continuously framed so as to deter rather than encourage public response and opinion. This was evident at the time where terms like ‘Queue jumper' and ‘UnAustralian' were frequently used in the media to label the unwelcome or the undesirable while ‘mateship' and ‘ordinary Australian' where to promote otherwise. The ongoing reliance on and promotion of colloquialism as suggestive of nationhood can be tracked through times when Australia has most needed to identify itself in relation to significant groups who are perceived as ‘other'.

Prompted by an ongoing response to the labels I tried the experience again around the Australia day celebrations of 2002 (post Tampa crisis) with an extended selection of labels distributed to a broader community. My intention was to generate an intimate yet public space for a dialogue with what it means to be Australian. The public could select from labels such as ‘Aussie', ‘Battler', Digger, ‘Ordinary Australian', ‘Mateship', ‘Pioneer', ‘Queue-jumper', and ‘unAustralian'. The subscriber response was overwhelming, I had projected 100 subscribers, but 180 signed up.

On this occasion participants subscribed to wear their label for a week and were invited to observe responses, their own and others, in the changing contexts of their everyday. Feedback of their experiences was collated and a project catalogue was distributed back to the participants. Exhibited concurrently in windows around the CBD were a series of objects I fabricated in silver that I proposed were uncelebrated iconic objects of the every day. As a ‘distributed exhibition', (Kevin Murray Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious, 2005) Culturing the Body provided a social nexus through which the stereotypes, clichés and conventions of Australian cultural identity could be tested, acted out and even challenged.

In the evaluation of this project I have referred to non-material outcomes. In contrast to the predominant critical analysis of craft my analysis is not focused on my skill as a maker or the aesthetics I creatively pursue, but rather on the sociological experience of being involved in the process.

This process is known as performative, a modality of practice that is gaining momentum throughout the work of a number of artists across the various fields of the arts. I want to refer to two: Australian painter and art theorist Barbara Bolt and British silversmith/design theorist Kristina Niedderer (Niedderer is a design researcher in the department of research at Falmouth College of Arts, UK) . Both of these artists offer a theory of practice and through their insight we might begin to discuss what was unique about these projects that occurred in Melbourne.

Bolt explores the performative aspects of the painted image in her book Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image . Bolt felt the established view of art history and theory didn't explain the phenomena she felt was happening in the process of her work. Bolt paints the figure in still life and describes the process of painting as almost like channelling (my words) the image and she experiences the relationship between the body and matter, i.e. the paint, as having a dynamic relationship. Bolt champions ideas such as mutual reflection between imagining and reality and suggests the encounter in or with art involves ‘movement ‘, a kind of transmutation between imaging and reality one where ‘the outside world enters the work and the work cast its effects back into the world.' (Bolt 2004, p.190).

Through her research and making of drinking vessels Kristina Niedderer offers a different approach. Neidderer suggests the performative object as having ‘a mediating role within social interaction, between the users, and thus to question social interrelations and beliefs, and to contribute proactively to shaping them as a catalyst for social life.' In her thesis titled ‘ The Performative Object: Enacting the Humane Dimension Within' (presented at 5 th International Conference of the European Academy of Design in Barcelona Spain 2003). Niedderer states ‘the performative may create awareness, understanding, and more responsible (social) action, and hence contribute to enacting the humane dimension. ' For Neidderer the humane as distinct from the human is central to the moral debate of responsible design. She distinguishes the humane for its ability to express ‘the civil, courteous, or obliging behavior towards others' and proposes that the performative object offer a ‘possible way of bridging the gap between design thinking and design practice, and of integrating humane values proactively into human life.' (Niedderer 2003, p.1)

Bolts notion of the encounter and Niedderer's interest in the moral function of objects points to the phenomenological aspects of the performative. What differentiates the projects I am discussing here today from Bolt's and Niedderer's enquiry is that they involve real time experience with material culture. The audience/viewer were engaged and the creative process was extended to include object, maker, viewer, space and time. Here skill, mastery, aesthetic can become subject to the performative. So the outcomes at times can be at times unpredictable.

I will continue by describing the next project that occurred in Melbourne Caz Guiney's project City Rings .

How we value and appreciate the environment of our every day was the central motif explored in this project. From her studio in the CBD Guiney observed and was fascinated by how the public appeared to dislocate from the environment in which they inhabited. Wanting to encourage an appreciation of the uniqueness of the Melbourne City Guiney decided to communicate her ideal through the material language she knew best. The project entailed creating fourteen rings designed specifically to sites located in streets, laneways and roof tops of Melbourne's C.B.D. Rings of gold and silver some set with diamonds were wedged, suspended, and fitted into spaces that Guiney carefully selected. These intimate galleries were documented and the photographs of the rings in situ were exhibited.

And this is where the story gets interesting. If we look at ‘Two men sitting with ring on wooden board', the ring whilst in the foreground is focused off centre. Its form suggests an opening but it is embedded within a wooden surface. There are no signs, or labels that tell us that what we are looking at is a precious object or intended for the finger. The image does not privilege the masterful craftsmanship of the form or material preciousness; rather there is a spatial tension between the men who are slightly out of focus in the background, and there is a sense of relationship with the ring – that of being in its presence.

The metaphoric richness of this concept does require a shift in perception, its subtlety is revealed through a willingness to participate in an ‘encounter' with a ring in a non-habitual way. This challenge to cohabit was met with an interesting response. Through a relatively unassuming publicity campaign the public were invited to go on a journey and discover the trail of rings within the inner city. The story broke first on the front page of The Australian (28 May 2003) and within hours of the launch prime time news grasped onto the story. The project came under intense television and newspaper scrutiny of the project. The notion of material preciousness resonated within the public's sense of materialistic value and some showed an almost frenzied determination to hunt down and claim the rings . The city came alive with the prospecting energy it was once founded on.

Sometimes public response goes beyond the intention of the artist and the frenzy generated by this project was like no other I had witnessed. The public response was fascinating; quietude and responsibility were replaced by a seemingly untameable energy, and televised moments of victorious claims. For a brief period the nooks and crannies of the city's spaces were interrogated and viewed in a different light, the lives of its inhabitants were enriched and I should point out the city scape hasn't been the same since there are a few rings that still remain unclaimed!

In Culturing the Body and City Rings public space became a performative domain for social interaction and engagement with material culture. In these two projects the makers opened their practice to possibilities of interpretation, interruption and allowed for the complexities of the urban world to infiltrate. The relationship between object, audience or viewer was extended; the audience become performers within the process.

From the methods of public interaction and engagement described by these two projects we might begin to imagine an experience of creating beyond the formal order of process in our own discipline. Historically the craft of jewellery has assumed a pattern-making like schema. Each stage is compartmentalised, defined by a causal chain that flows from a point of beginning through to a projected conclusion. Critical analysis of jewellery often focuses on the materialised object and measures of success are framed in terms of an idealised aesthetic and the maker's mastery over the material. More often than not, once the moment of creative clarity has been achieved, the process is considered complete. Transcending this ideology of process to engage with the public, time and space presents a challenge for those who practice the craft of jewellery and those who appreciate it. And I would like to elaborate further on its potential by describing one other project that happened in Melbourne.

Ring Cycle was a project exhibited as part of Susan Cohn's show Black Intentions held at Federation Square in 2003. Eighty-one predominantly black aluminium rings were sectioned into groups, demarcated by the secondary colouring that permeated their surfaces.

For the uninitiated, aluminium is a soft metal and anodising as a surface treatment offers some resilience, but as with most surface treatments when subject to use its veneer of perfection unfolds. Prior to the exhibition, Cohn distributed the anodised aluminium rings to select participants, some were connected to her via her social or professional networks while with others she admired their contribution to Melbourne's cultural life such as ‘women doing important daily activity' (Cohn 2005, personal interview). The participants were asked to wear the ring as part of their everyday for a period of time before returning the rings to Cohn. Most makers take care to avoid abrasive situations before a work is sold, but in this body of work Cohn embraced it.

In previous work, Cosmetic Manipulations (1992) and Way Past Real (1995) Cohn has explored surface treatment and manifestation of wear as signifiers of meaning. In this instance, the wearing down or through the surface of this group of rings revealed a hidden aspect of the city in which she lived and worked in.

The rings' blackened surface were buffeted by wear and interspersed with intrusions. Each abrasion marked a trace of interaction the wearer had with their daily environment. Through a re-anodising process the marks were subsequently highlighted in a range of colours. These colours codified the rings as groups—their subtle differences accentuated by Cohn naming each group as a ‘gang;' ‘annals', ‘ponies', ‘slinkies' and ‘zests', ‘mangles', ‘orals', ‘movers', ‘mates' and ‘contra's'. By Cohn's definition ‘Mangles' were crafts people; ‘orals' were food people; ‘zests' were people who had never worn a ring before but happily embraced the project; ‘contra's' were people who resisted conditions of the project while ‘ponies' deliberately marked their ring so that could find it in the line up. A brief explanation of the gangs was exhibited alongside the rings but the identity of the wearers was to remain anonymous.

Initially Cohn classified the rings in terms of the wearer's profession but as the project evolved her observations turned to another level of awareness. How the rings were worn began to suggest personal traits of the wearer and Cohn began to organise the groups differently. In our discussion Cohn spoke of how she felt educated by the project, she observed how participants responded to its constraints, some resisting others adapting to the intrusion of the ring. As we talked further stories emerged on the psychosis of wearing. One participant stopped wearing their ring because of the prospect of being associated with another wearer, others deliberately marked their ring as they felt it didn't show enough wear, while others weren't able to wear marks into their ring at all.

As a collective exhibit the rings were a representation of a group of people who lived and worked within the same city and as a result the gallery space became filled with the voices of those who had participated or those who knew somebody who had participated. However, as viewers we were not privy to the identity of the wearers, I felt a trace of the other in the subtle personalised decoration of each ring, and in choosing the ring I like the most, there was an appealing yet disconcerting sense of it being second hand.

I love the poetic sensibility of this project; the process of wearing intervenes in the process of making and marks out new territories for creating individualised work.

Cohn's technique of immersing the ‘wear of the wearer' within the process of making further illustrates Bolt's concept of practice as movement. In movement there is another mode of revelation, one in which the object is expressed through the aesthetic of an artist who is ‘in' relation to her subject. In this relationship there is closeness rather than a distance, an embedding within, rather than a distancing from.

In their own inimitable ways, the projects discussed in this paper ‘got embedded' into the fabric and heart of the city. They intercepted and obstructed the polite anonymity of its arterial transport systems, and through a performative process encountered the life of those who play and work in its offices, bars and cafés. In their process of engagement, interaction and intervention they brought forth the ‘making' of an object in the fullest sense expanding the conditions for how jewellery is practiced and the possibilities for how it can be perceived.

As a post-script I wanted to talk briefly about two works I recently created while on an Australia Council residency in Barcelona. During my residency I wanted to work with the form of the necklace and capture in a material sense a trace of the city and its people. In conjunction with work I made in the studio I made two performative works. In the first piece titled ‘Link, Link, Link…' I invited the public to draw a link of a chain, just one link with the only other limitation being it had to link in with the previous link. I set up a roll of till paper on a small table outside gallery Alea in the Born, the old part of the city, and offered the public a choice of drawing materials —pencils pens crayons, etc., which could be sharpened to personal taste. I had no idea what would happen how people who were not jewellers would solve the design problem of linking with the previous drawing but the solutions were endlessly creative and some strong individual drawings eventuated making for a very expressive chain. At this stage ‘Link, Link Link…' exists as a drawing with the possibility of being realised as a wearable chain.

I believe in the powerful capacity of jewellery to unite people in intimate ways and the second piece I made was called ‘Human Necklace'. The cultural background of this piece refers to the Catalan folk dance called the Sardana, a circular jig performed regularly in the square outside the Cathedral. People gather with a brass band and link arms to dance in a rotating together in a circular form. The Sardana is quite formal in expression far removed from the passionate expression of the Flamenco. I felt moved not only by the idea of dancing in a public space but also by the metaphoric reference to the necklace in the dancers linking formation.

For the human necklace I invited a group of people to gather in the square outside MACBA (public contemporary art space) and while facing outwards form a circle or an oval. The formations lasted the length of a breath and were documented from inside the upper level of the gallery —replicating the gaze through the glass cabinet or shop window. From this distance the body framed the links and details such as a kicked ball, a crossed leg, or the security guard coming to tell us to finish up made for the uniqueness of each chain.

My intention is to develop these works and gain further insight into the potential of craft to engage performatively with identity, space and time, because I believe now more than ever craft provides the locus for creating the links that bind us together.


Barbara Bolt Art Beyond Representation. The Performative Power of the Image I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd London 2004

Kristina Niedderer ‘The Performative Object: Enacting the Humane Dimension within Design' presented at 5 th International Conference of the European Academy of Design in Barcelona Spain 2003

Kevin Murray Craft Unbound Make the Common Precious Thames and Hudson 2005


Roseanne Bartley was in Santiago for the South Project gathering in October 2006 and as an exhibitor in Make the Common Precious.


Last modified 09-Feb-2007

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Craft Victoria.