True colours: All Auras Touch’ at Carriageworks

Kate Hennessy
The Monthly

Work mat­ters in artist Kate Mitchell’s explo­ration of the fun­da­men­tal con­nec­tions between people

I’m going to tell you about the colours in your aura por­trait,” says artist Kate Mitchell. She holds the Polaroid by its edges as I mate­ri­alise face-up from the depths like a drowned woman sur­fac­ing a nox­ious algal bloom. What is vis­i­ble is a lot of orange,” says Mitchell. You’re bathed in it.”

I’d seen one of Mitchell’s por­traits on a friend’s Insta­gram. Her face was radi­ant amid a diaphanous drift of celes­tial white and vio­let. Yet here is mine, on Decem­ber 10, mired in bush­fire-coloured murk, as if my aura had sopped up the over­flow of Australia’s col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. Snuffed-out sky­lines may be the new nor­mal now, but then the dread was fresh and deep.

Ringed by fire, Syd­ney had wok­en to its smok­i­est day yet. As the air qual­i­ty index fell 12 times below the haz­ardous thresh­old, employ­ees filed from evac­u­at­ed build­ings to a water view from Baranga­roo that looked like a very bad day on the Yangtze. Foghorns blared; then the fer­ries stopped alto­geth­er. The absence of shad­ow made sound less crisp too, as if a blan­ket had been tossed over our senses.

Mitchell’s goal with her Car­riage­works-com­mis­sioned work, All Auras Touch, is to dis­play the aura por­traits of 1023 Aus­tralians accord­ing to the 1023 jobs includ­ed in the Aus­tralian and New Zealand Stan­dard Clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Occu­pa­tions list. It’s a huge­ly out­ward-fac­ing work because its com­ple­tion relies on the pub­lic par­tic­i­pat­ing in it,” she says.

She will need a slaugh­ter­er. A sex work­er. A meat bon­er and slicer. A shear­er, a shot fir­er, a mag­is­trate, a gas­troen­terol­o­gist and a zookeep­er. A yarn card­ing and spin­ning machine operator. 

I am job #714, a print jour­nal­ist, and my orange aura sig­ni­fies a huge­ly opti­mistic” ener­gy. There’s a kind of anato­my to the images and it shows opti­mism in your recent past, your present tense and your close future,” Mitchell says. Her 2IC on the project is the Aura­Cam 6000, an elec­tro­mag­net­ic cam­era invent­ed by Guy Cog­gins in Los Ange­les in the 1970s, and her inter­pre­ta­tions are tak­en from his orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al. You’ve been dialled in to a lev­el of opti­mism, irre­spec­tive of what’s been going on.”

It’s pseu­do­science, sure, but actu­al sci­ence has scanned more like the Old Tes­ta­ment late­ly: in our tiny South Coast hol­i­day town, where life is sim­ple and sweet, it’s report­ed that fires are burn­ing with such feroc­i­ty they’re cre­at­ing pyrocu­mu­lonim­bus clouds with the poten­tial to unleash thun­der, light­ning and soot-encrust­ed hail. Our annu­al sleepy hol­low, sud­den­ly a song of ice and fire. It’s a truth that’s less plau­si­ble than my ener­getic colours express­ing some­thing of my essence. At least the pseu­do­science comes with a guar­an­tee that all news is good news.

Cog­gins has claimed that the camera’s biofeed­back aura imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy” gives every­one the abil­i­ty to see auras … to help gain deep­er per­son­al insight”. Whether it ful­fils these claims or not is irrel­e­vant to Mitchell. I’m not try­ing to prove auras exist, or to prove the valid­i­ty of the Aura­Cam,” she says. I’m a con­cep­tu­al artist and my prac­tice is ideas. The por­traits are a visu­al device to talk about the many ways we exist, about con­scious­ness and energy.”

And about work. Mitchell is obsessed” with it – and so are we, she says. It’s what we spend the major­i­ty of our lives doing. There’s very lit­tle about us that isn’t relat­ed to work. So to inves­ti­gate work means to bet­ter under­stand things like fail­ure, suc­cess, val­ue, phys­i­cal­i­ty and the lan­guage of par­tic­u­lar industries.”

Are we what we do? More specif­i­cal­ly: does our work and our essence as humans (as rep­re­sent­ed by the Aura­Cam 6000) inter­sect? Reflect? Con­tra­dict? None of the above? It’s a ques­tion that mean­ders into con­sid­er­a­tion of the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. Of Marx­ist notions of labour and how it trans­forms accord­ing to the polit­i­cal econ­o­my in which you toil. Of spir­i­tu­al con­vic­tions of fate and divin­i­ty. It’s a com­pli­cat­ed ques­tion, then, but a child could fol­low its gist. What do you want to be when you grow up?

When the exhi­bi­tion opens on Jan­u­ary 8, Mitchell’s goal to hang 400 por­traits is achieved. It’s a trans­fix­ing sight. 1023 rec­tan­gu­lar box­es are arranged in a vast colour spec­trum along three long walls. Fill­ing 400 of the box­es are the com­plet­ed por­traits. As polaroids, they gloss­i­ly reflect your gaze. Print­ed on A2-size heavy­weight mat­te paper, the por­traits are plush vel­vety por­tals you feel you could dis­ap­pear into.

The remain­ing 623 box­es dis­play the names of occu­pa­tions Mitchell is yet to pho­to­graph. While the job titles seem stiff and bureau­crat­ic – insur­ance loss adjuster, patents exam­in­er, con­struc­tion esti­ma­tor – the font is fun. It looks to have been spat from a Com­modore 64, with the grid pat­tern evok­ing the retro video-arcade vibe of 1980s games like Pac-Man and Bat­tle­ship, or Gillian Rubenstein’s 1985 nov­el, Space Demons.

The fire fight­er” box has no por­trait, although New­town Fire and Res­cue Sta­tion is just a few blocks away. If it remains at the end, I’ll be like, thank you so much for doing your jobs’,” says Mitchell.

Her work is part of the data visu­al­i­sa­tion move­ment, where artists make large data sets res­onate, and her tim­ing is uncan­ni­ly good. We’re trans­fixed by visu­al data right now; our safe­ty relies on it. We’re glued to fire apps and maps, to rain radars, Doppler radars and the air qual­i­ty index. To new sym­bol­o­gy such as the Bureau of Meteorology’s dot­ted lines to fore­cast smoke haze.

Despite its best efforts to the con­trary, the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics’ occu­pa­tions list is a fas­ci­nat­ing text. It’s print­ed as a nav­i­ga­tion­al tool at Car­riage­works, flap­ping about at rough­ly the size of a Sen­ate bal­lot paper, with some­thing both quaint and irri­tat­ing in its quest to clas­si­fy the unruly world into sub­mis­sion with its fid­dly tax­on­o­my. The list is described as includ­ing all jobs in the Aus­tralian work­force”, yet artist” is not list­ed. Mitchell was only able to par­tic­i­pate in her own work because she’s an art teacher too.

I’m inter­est­ed in why we roman­ti­cise and respect cer­tain types of work, and not oth­ers,” she says. It’s often uncon­scious, from a life­time of social con­di­tion­ing. Espe­cial­ly as an artist, I under­stand this. Most artists don’t earn more than $30,000 a year, we live on the fringes finan­cial­ly, and now we don’t even have an art min­istry; so, out of sight, out of mind.”

She needs hun­dreds more vol­un­teers to fill the posi­tions vacant. Word must reach the pig farmer, the hunter-trap­per and the back­hoe oper­a­tor. The week­end farm­ers’ mar­ket at Car­riage­works will help her source more of the rur­al roles, she hopes, with new por­traits hung reg­u­lar­ly. It will be con­tin­u­al­ly shift­ing ener­gy until the end of February.”

Even if her quest remains unful­filled, as I assume it will, there’s much to admire in its grand designs and its ambi­tion despite the odds. It’s the sort of ges­ture we need mod­elled in Aus­tralia right now.

Mitchell says she want­ed to remind peo­ple that we are fun­da­men­tal­ly con­nect­ed to one anoth­er” but also to the envi­ron­ment. We’ll per­ish if it per­ish­es, yet we have this brava­do, as if that’s not a fact. Aura pho­tog­ra­phy is a beau­ti­ful vehi­cle to talk about the idea that we exist in ways we can’t quite com­pre­hend or see.”

As for Coggins’s claim that see­ing your aura helps you gain deep­er per­son­al insight”, he’s not far off. On a day when I was full of dread, my opti­mistic orange” read­ing remind­ed me that peo­ple always used to say I was hap­py and pos­i­tive. I’d for­got­ten that. It remind­ed me that it’s been a while since I heard it, but that I’m ready to find my way back.

All Auras Touch is open until March 1 at Carriageworks.



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