Batting for the same team: Collaboration, negotiation and support in the works of Parallel Park
Sarah L. Thomson
Parallel Park was borne out of a desire to explore the shared experience of being in a serious queer relationship for the first time. It is the collaborative practice of Holly Bates and Tayla Jay Haggarty, two Brisbane-based artists who met while studying visual art at the Queensland University of Technology. Since 2015 the duo has made work together that explores both the external factors that impact their queer relationship, like stereotyping and objectification, as well as the internal intricacies of being a romantic couple. Parallel Park’s practice spans performance, installation, sculpture and video; they use a playful, humorous approach to analyse their own relationship dynamics and the nature of artistic collaboration.
Bates and Haggarty have their own individual practices and so they see working together under the moniker Parallel Park as an opportunity to surrender their egos by operating under a unified name.1 When beginning their collaboration in their third year of university they had similar ideas but very different skills; by joining forces they were able to remove any competitiveness in their relationship, instead encourage a nurturing, skill sharing collaboration.2 The duo notes that by working together they are able to support each other both emotionally and physically in order to achieve more ambitious projects.3 The production of their work together relies on the negotiation and mutual support inherent in their relationship, exploring how these processes function in different contexts. Their practice is a visual dialogue steeped in a sense of duality; two individuals working in tandem to support a greater whole.
Parallel Park’s first solo exhibition Tandem (2016), held at Artist Run Initiative (ARI) Cut Thumb, used elements of camp — a theatrical ‘stage’, popular music and impersonation through audience participation — to highlight the performative nature of relationship dynamics. The show consisted of a two-part installation in a domestic backyard in Brisbane’s West End. In a rickety shed an exercise bike fitted with BMX stunt pegs was positioned in front of a glitzy green backdrop, with lights and fans aimed at the riders. Visitors were encouraged to mount the bike in duos, performing to a camera pop songs from artists like Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue and Fergie, as well as slower romantic songs like Beach House’s Take Care.4 The performance was live-streamed and projected under the Queenslander-style house where other visitors could watch. This makeshift theatrical setting, combined with the very casual nature of Brisbane ARIs, set the stage for a playful karaoke-booth style party.
The single seat and set of pedals — as opposed to the equal distribution of labour on an actual tandem bike — forced participant pairs to negotiate their roles in this impromptu performed relationship. The decision to sit and pedal or to stand and lean on your partner for support could either be assumed or openly discussed. Will you let your partner lip-synch while you happily pedal along in support? Who drives the relationship? Is one person putting in more work while the other enjoys the ride? Or perhaps participants will decide to go it alone and perform solo, preferring to be fully in control? For those more familiar with their riding partner these roles might be inferred, while for others this process might require a more conscious negotiation. As a relational scenario, Tandem points to the minute, often unnoted negotiations or assumptions that take place between groups of two individuals produced in collaboration and co-performance.
This Trojan horse of a work allowed audiences to playfully lean into an exaggerated version of themselves, adopting aspects of camp performance by exaggerating sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.5 Because participants were having so much fun, the potentially anxiety-inducing premise of a participatory performance fell away. Instead of participants performing directly to viewers, the audience was present on the sidelines and in a separate space under the house where the performance could only be seen by video. Riders were likely to ham up their performance or exaggerate their level of intimacy with their biking partner, not unlike an impassioned karaoke duet with a relative stranger. As artist Courtney Coombs asked visitors in the accompanying essay: ‘Are you more concerned with your appearance than the actual dynamics of your relationship?’6 It raised the question of how genuine or contrived this tandem performance was, and how a perceived or real audience might impact these interactions.
Parallel Park address the politics of romantic relationships and collaborations through a particularly queer lens. In Tandem the use of ‘guilty pleasure’ pop songs, the showy lights, fans, and sparkly backdrop, demonstrate how camp can be used as a ‘... feminist model for critiques of gender and sex roles ...’ contributing to discussions of ‘... gender construction, performance and enactment.’7 The flexibility in the range of dynamics and the non-prescriptive situation that Parallel Park constructed allowed for a multitude of approaches to relationships. This work takes a playful and lighthearted approach to highlight how we choose to perform relationship dynamics and how we negotiate and determine these roles with another person.
Many of Parallel Park’s works employ their own bodies or the bodies of participants in situations that require negotiation and mutual support, making visible the mechanics of collaboration. These role negotiations can be unspoken and assumed — like many of our personal interactions — or devised and practiced in a more conscious way to achieve a shared goal, akin to a professional working relationship. While Parallel Park still make humorous and sexually charged work, recent works provide examples of an emotional seriousness. Physically supporting of each other’s bodies is vital to the performance of these collaborative actions, speaking to the nature of their partnership but also, in a broader sense, to the crucial support that queer communities provide in the shared experience of navigating the world as a queer person.
Parallel Park’s use of a prop to determine the conditions for a collaborative action continued in a recent work, Mission Surge (2018). Developed at Melbourne’s West Space as part of the duo’s ‘Performance in Progress’ residency, the work saw Bates and Haggarty manoeuvring a four-metre long kayak dubbed ‘the divorce boat’ around the gallery space.8 Both dressed in black, they carefully lowered themselves onto the kayak which was balanced precariously on a mover’s dolly. They had to move in unison using paddles topped with swimming caps to grip to the floor, propelling themselves forward through the space. Their actions were considered as they paddled first on one side then the other, turning the boat around and slowly making their way through to other rooms of the gallery. This absurd action is soundtracked in the video documentation by a comical splish-splash sound, as if the pair were actually taking a leisurely paddle.
For a viewer this futile action is comical at first, like a slapstick routine, but as the minutes go on the tone changes as the process of the collaborative action becomes clearer. At times the kayak spins off course when a push is slightly too hard or the paddle slips, and the artists silently negotiate their next move. Although both artists remain composed during the process the thirty minute duration results in moments where they visibly struggle to perform these awkward movements. There is no gentle and forgiving current to help them glide along. The kayak is like a fish out of water and it is hard work to keep moving forward through this unaccommodating environment.
Unlike the exercise bike in Tandem, the kayak in Mission Surge requires a forfeiting of the individual ego and the equal contribution of effort to stay afloat. The albeit absurd task would be impossible alone, and even proves difficult together. It addresses the support and understanding integral to keeping a serious relationship afloat and the added complexity of facing the external factors that impact their queer relationship. By (mis)using an object to function in a new way, Parallel Park speak to the potential of institutional alternatives and different models of operating in the contemporary art world. The duo are strongly involved in the close-knit ARI community in Brisbane, co-directing ARI Clutch Collective alongside artists Annie McIndoe and Naomi Blacklock. Clutch Collective operates from a moving truck, able to be driven to different locations around the city for one-day exhibitions. The context of Mission Surge at West Space, itself beginning as an ARI in 1993, is another example of an alternative model for art spaces that have the potential to foster experimentation, collaboration and support, especially for artists under-represented in larger institutions.
A previous work, In Time (2017) developed for Hobiennale, was Parallel Park’s first foray into live, durational performance. This work was a choreographed negotiation that saw Bates and Haggarty performing a combination of poses as individuals and poses that physically supported each other. Instead of the spontaneous or unspoken negotiations of participants in Tandem or the unified, coordinated effort of Bates and Haggarty in Mission Surge, this work was choreographed in a way that highlighted the duality of being in a relationship. This work shows Bates and Haggarty as two individuals, performing their own actions, living their own lives and coming back together to support each other in their shared experience.
The Brisbane performance of the above work took place in a small besser-block storage warehouse, the former home of ARI Outer Space. In this iteration, the performers stood behind a partially raised roller door where, after a drawn-out pause, the sound of leaf blowers could be heard. A trickle of fake rose petals were blown into the space. The roller door was raised and Haggarty and Bates, dressed in dark green boiler suits, entered the space and walked to two sets of televisions hooked onto the wall. Methodically they took turns to unhook the TVs and help each other buckle them on like backpacks with bright red straps across their chests. Long red cords from the TVs trailed on the ground.
Displayed on the TVs were red rose petals blowing around in slow motion on a concrete floor. A recognisable symbol of romance and luxury, the rose petals are in stark contrast to the industrial setting and hardy workwear of the two artists, speaking to an earnest tenderness in tough circumstances. The TVs made a dollop noise and the scene of the rose petals switched to a glowing orb on a blue background, seemingly to signal a routine of poses. The artists moved around the space, assuming another pose every time the TVs made their water-dollop signal. The artists appeared relaxed but dutiful, one leaning against the wall while the other lay on the ground. In one pose they held each other’s forearms and leant out; in another they rested their heads on each other’s shoulders while leaning in to form an A-frame shape.
Totally oblivious to the audience members who were forced to shift out of their path, Bates and Haggarty moved around the space with calm, deadpan expressions. Unlike Tandem, viewers were not actively invited to participate in this work, however the duo notes that ‘it felt like as we moved through our positions, the audience was dancing with us.’9 The performers continued their choreographed routine as if they were simply going about their day, doing a task alone, a task together, over and over. Drawn-out moments of stillness and silence had the effect of making the audience very aware that they were witnessing small, intimate moments between two people, creating a tender but bittersweet atmosphere.
Just as Mission Surge demonstrated how collaboration, support and negotiation can be hard work, In Time used the aesthetics of ‘work’ to show how emotional and physical support can be entwined. The sombre tone of the performance makes sense in the context of the work’s development during the time of the marriage equality debate in Australia. The duo stated that ‘at the time we felt like there was a lot of pressure on the queer community’10 and this work conveys a heart breaking earnestness for everyday love in a world that seems to be actively preventing it. While arguably their most serious work, In Time still contains elements of their signature deadpan humour through its stylistic flourishes; the cheesy fake rose petals and effortlessly stylish and coordinated workwear that fetishises industrial aesthetics.
Through their collaborative practice as Parallel Park, Holly Bates and Tayla Jay Haggarty document their experience working together as partners and as artists. Their work continues to show a sensitivity to the fluctuations and dynamics of two people working together and the structural demands placed on queer bodies. While the contexts for each of their collaborative works are different, they return again and again to analyse how support and negotiation can function; to help each other keep paddling.
Sarah L. Thomson is a Brisbane- based emerging arts writer and artsworker. In 2017 she graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane with a dual degree in Art History and Marketing. She is a founding member of In Residence ARI, an online publication that features interviews, essays and reviews of emerging art practices in Brisbane. Sarah currently works in arts marketing and communications at the Institute of Modern Art, having interned at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) on the Google Art Project.