Interview with Victoria Spence

Victoria Spence
Victoria Spence, from Death Letter Project

Victoria Spence is an established performance artist now working as a holistic funeral director with her business Life Rites. We had a chat with her about the curation of LIVE DREAMS: THRESHOLD, her practice and career, and what working with death looks like. 

You’ve worked in performance art for a long time, and have a long history with Performance Space. For people who’ve never heard of you, can you introduce yourself artistically? 

I have a background from the late 80s into the early 2000s in independent experimental performance making. Through the 90s and early 2000s I did a lot of work in queer performance, especially in image based non-narrative experimental theatre practice. I started working with Performance Space when I was 21 I think in 1988 and really PSpace became my artistic home. When I was at 199 Cleveland St, Redfern I sort of grew up. I look back and see I was in a dynamic generation of performers and with an incredible community.

It was at a time when all those master narratives, those well-made plays, the beginning middle and end were all being mixed up and I really felt, at that time, that there was something very potent happening in performance: in the way the performer-audience relationships were being challenged. That fourth wall was being deconstructed. People were moving away from theatres and conventional seating. There was a lot of work where the audience and performers were all on the floor together. I found this really interesting in shifting power relationships in terms of where did the performance begin and end, and who was on stage and who wasn’t. It was a very fertile and rich time. It was an era in Sydney where you could be an independent artist and  learn skills and performance methodologies on the street. There were a lot of companies that were solidly project funded that you can work in and with. I feel very lucky that I caught the end of pre-gentrified Sydney. Where you could work as an artist, and go to uni, and work some cash in hand jobs. There was a cohesive net that held you and helped you experiment. 

Through the 90s I then stepped off stage because I was interested in creating cultural spaces, what we would call now a cultural producer. I’m a queer indentifying human, and so it was a significant time in the queer community with HIV and AIDs. There was a lot of death happening, My work became queer focused and in that capacity I produed performance events around HIV and AIDs. I was one of the people contributing to Club Bent, Groovy Biscuit, Taboo Parlour, Unbecomings… the lineages of which still continue today with Performance Space and Queer Nu Werk. My artistic practice became a cultural practice. 

Around the early 2000s I did a radical thing as an independent solo human and I had a baby. And that really necessitated another re-orientation of my practice - away from what we understand as the ‘frame’ of the art. At that point I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the seeming irrelevance of art in the broader community. Unless you were in the art-loving, art-practising scene, people didn’t recognise some very fundamental and key artistic practices that are relevant to all lives. 

To quote you, ‘artists continue to meet the conditions of our existence’. You’ve kind of materialised this for yourself in your career. Can you explain your path from working in the arts to studying death?

I was driven practically. I’d had a baby and was like I need to be worth more than 2 cents an hour and I can’t be on stage at 8pm. Basically I was thinking “what have i been doing? If I left the arts, what would come with me?. I was shaped by all those fabulous friends who had died during the 90s with HIV and AIDS, and the death of both my parents - one happened in the 90s and the other in the early 2000s - and then having a child in 2001. 

I made a very conscious decision to ‘reframe’ my artistic practice into what I called ‘contemporary rites of passage’. I really believed that we needed better life rites and we needed better secular funeral alternatives. I’d spent all those years rolling about on the floor, making some great shows, and some shows people didn’t understand, but I knew I had a powerful methodology to create meaning. So I flipped from the frame of the arts going “come to see me, my show, my work”, to “come to me if you have something in your life that you want to make meaning of, that is significant, that you need to bring ceremony to, that you need to bring everyday theatre to.” That was really the beginning of me building what now is called Life Rites. I’m comfortable speaking in front of people, meeting people at big times of their life and trusting the process. That's what I really learnt from those years of experimental art practice is to inherently, intrinsically trust the process to take you somewhere you can’t get yourself. 

I trained as a celebrant, I did a Masters of Death, Dying and Palliative Care, I did a counselling degree, I put my hand up in my community as the death literate person you came to if someone was sick or dying, I trained as an end of life doula, I basically just did everything I could in the years from 2003 to now. I’ve been trying to chip away at the industrial death complex and to chart that sort of innovative, practice driven, bespoke pathway for people. I took my artistic practice out of the arts, I re-framed it and I built a viable practice and business which I'm now building more solidly.

You chose the LIVE DREAMS theme ‘Threshold’. Can you give us some insight into how you chose this theme and what it means to you?

The methodology of my life practice, Life Rites, often engages in threshold spaces because I very much believe we can utilise ceremonial spaces in our everyday lives. Artists exist in these liminal threshold spaces, good theatre will take you to a place where you are taken further than where you can get yourself, where you are brought to the end of what you know, where the power of someone else’s creative vision and imagination can offer you something really intimate, insightful, profound, or just highly enjoyable. 

Threshold came very clearly and quickly once I thought about the word. I love the balance of it. I love the first syllable ‘thresh’. I love the double ‘h’ in threshold… I love the actual letters that make up the word.

I find thresholds invigorating spaces that say to you “you're safe here” even though you are stepping beyond what you know, and you're stepping up for the possibility of adventure, excitement and change. Threshold spaces are about unbecoming as much as becoming, an ending as much as a beginning. I wanted to offer artists an opportunity to come to the end of what we know. To take a punt on imagination, to find ways to feel into how we might offer an experience to the audience. 

As an audience, we want to come to the end of where our own thinking can get us. And I think there’s this sense that the limitations of our language are the limits of our world. What does it mean to not know? 

I wanted to reinvigorate a sense of our own presence. Threshold is a word that's close to my heart. It is a place of restoration - of doing and undoing, becoming and unbecoming, of possibility. I wanted to offer that experience to the audience, the artists and myself. I took myself to the end of what I knew in terms of programming artists, there are some I had never heard of and who had limited history of their work.

You’ve curated an interesting and diverse lineup for June 12. Can you give us some insight into your curatorial process? 

The curatorial process was hard because I wanted to put so many people in. I had to keep returning to my own curatorial statement. I wasn’t just choosing individual artists. I was choosing works that might compliment one another. I was looking to what people were exploring conceptually and thinking what thresholds are you meeting? I also just intuitively went with works that I felt something about. I’m asking us to come to the end of what we know so I did that, I chose works that are conceptually worthy and speak to thematics really clearly. 

I want the night to shift the form that LIVE DREAMS has been presented during the pandemic. I`m interested in building an experience, having the works talking to each other and segueing into each other. We’ll see what is possible with the production needs. But, politically, I’m not that interested in the individual artist. I'm interested in what we can build when the constituent parts of a whole are more than the sum of themselves. Which is very much what the whole idea of threshold is about. I want the audience to experience something building and shifting, moving through feeling different ways without that arbitrary division of where one person’s work ends and another begins. I’m trying to push form. Where are the fractures and the fault lines? I’ve always been interested in transitional spaces. With my performance history in the non-narrative non-linear works I was creating, meaning is made in the transitions. That is what is most interesting to me. 

I want to allow the thematic to have a real and actual presence on the night.

Lastly, what’s next? Is there anything else we should be keeping an eye out for? 

Life Rites is the key practice of my life. I’ve got two things that are in the works and both of them are under the Life Rites umbrella. One is inspired by some of the artists that I worked with as their funeral director. A few key members of our queer creative community died over the last couple of years. I’m going to do a night of works called Grief Works that is working with people who are artists that have also been clients of Life Rites. Whether relations of theirs have died, key people, artistic members of community. I’m going to curate a night of conversation and creative work with the provocation around utilising creative processes to express what people’s grieving and mourning has been. This is the first time I’ve really used my explicitly artistic curatorial context within Life Rites.

And then at Life Rites we are going to hold a Mortality Festival which will have a performance component as well. It might be a separate night to Grief Works or it might be the performance night. We’ve had the festival ready to go for a couple of years now but we keep getting covid-ed.

I also have a long relationship as a dramaturg and show doula for Betty Grumble. So I’m working on her upcoming season of Enemies of Grooviness Eat Shit for vivid. 

That's it for now but part of my stepping back into this world, with LIVE DREAMS, is exploring what I might have to offer in my own body on stage. What does it mean to be soon to be 57? Since I was 20, I've been entirely shaped through performance. What might my body have to offer now? What might I say in this arena? I haven't made a ‘show’ since my solo show in 2005, so I’m just seeing where my voice is and where I might go. This is an exploration. 

Other than that I'm just looking after the dying and the dead one family at a time. 

Checkout the lineup and grab your tickets to LIVE DREAMS: THRESHOLD 

Follow Victoria & Life Rites on Instagram @liferitesfunerals

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