In conversation with  Therese Keogh

To cite this contribution:
Eaton, Jeremy and Fliedner, Kelly. Interview with Therese Keogh. ‘Memory Bank 2021’. Currents Journal, Issue Two (2021),

Download this interview  ︎︎︎PDF

Therese Keogh’s course of study:
Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Univeristy of Melbourne

Image ^^^ Therese Keogh, Forge (2020).

Jeremy Eaton [JE]: Kelly and I will be speaking to a couple of people from University of Western Australia who have recently graduated and we spoke to Ashley Perry, who's just finishing Masters at the VCA. In comparison to the others we are speaking to, you're at a much earlier stage of the research process. It would be great to hear what you've been up to and what you're working on?

Therese Keogh [TK]: Yes, so I'm six-seven months into my PhD, so it's early days. I'm looking at the material excesses, or residues of extraction and burning. Particularly materials like slag and clinker, and the ways that they can be used as a model for rewriting histories of extraction, including the social and cultural histories around extractive industries. At the moment I’m looking at some sites around Newcastle in New South Wales and coal mining that occurs there. I have been considering the unique material condition of slag, it has a strange geology that needs to be written differently, and what that writing might look like is a part of the exploration.

JE: Is the slag and clinker naturally occurring? or is it predominantly the remains of human based processes?

TK: The material mostly derives from large scale industries like metal smelting and coal burning, but it does occur  outside of those processes too. There's a place called Wingen which is about two and a half hours northwest of Newcastle on the lands of the  Wonnarua/Wanaruah people, and there's a coal seam fire that's been burning for 6000 years. It's the longest coal fire in the world and that produces a kind of clinker.

Kelly Fliedner [KF]:
It's difficult to wrap your head around that kind of time, isn't it? That must constitute a lot of your research, thinking about deep time and trying to find ways of building a relationship between our present and an expansive understanding of time and space.

TK: Yes, but another aspect is that there's this really extended temporal scale of something like 6000 years, but then you also have fire which has an expendability, an immediacy and presence. So the idea that a fire could be burning for that entire period has the potential to rearrange how I conceive time.

JE: It really does. When I have a fire at home, I think about how quickly it exhausts materials so the idea that it could be constantly going and it is just burning coal is incredible. Is there a sense of the coal seam fire ever ending?

TK: Oh, it's kind of the edge of the coal seam that goes through the Hunter Valley, then to Newcastle and then dips under Sydney and then comes back up in the Illawarra around Wollongong.

And those are two really large coal mining areas in New South Wales and they’re mining the same coal that's burning, almost on its own terms, or according to its own terms, in Wingen. It is then transported and used in manufacturing and things like that. But I don't think there's a way, or I'm not sure that there's an easy way, to extinguish it, and there's no real need to extinguish it. It is at the edge of this giant coal seam, so I can't imagine how it would burn through. I think the fire moves around a meter a year due to the constant burning.

KF: Is there any sense of the environmental impact that the burning has had over that period of time? And has anyone attempted to make an assessment of that? Because when you think of burning coal you think of damage to the environment, right? Well, that's what I do as like a layperson to this subject.

TK: I haven't read anything about the environmental impact of the burning. I've read stories about kangaroos finding warm spaces on the ground to sleep, and things like that. The Earth itself is baked there, and there are these sulfur vents. So the air smells of sulfur and you can hold your hand up to a sulfur vent and it's hot. But I think the impact of that compared to the impact of the coal mines is so minimal. I think it's interesting the way that the mines and the burning of coal are kind of restaging these particular earth processes or earth forces that are happening independently of what we understand of technology and industry.

KF: It's actually really amazing to think about. I hate saying the word Anthropocene, but, you know, that we always centre humans in the environment and you think well, no, there are ways that the world mutates and changes and works within itself that is totally separate to us, and so this is an example of it. But when human intervention creates a similar force the impact is so dangerous.

TK: Yes, I think it's the point at which those particular forces are coopted into something like capitalism or colonisation. It's seemingly the structures of those systems of value, trade and conquest that turn those geological forces into something else. I've also been looking at this dumping ground off the coast of Newcastle called the Spoil Grounds where they're constantly dredging Newcastle port. Coal ships go in and out and they've been continuously dredging the mouth of the Hunter River there for 162 years with this one little ship and dumping all of that material off the edge of the coast. I've been looking at maps of the deep sea and the way that they map the ocean floor is through sonar and echolocation, which is a large-scale version of what whales do, and at the same time a less efficient version of what whales do, and it's interesting to think about the ways that technologies are one of the things that make humans exceptional but they are also one of the things that make us very unexceptional.

JE: So that dredging process, is that on the opposite end of the coal seam?

TK: Yes, there are beaches around there and the coal seam actually juts out of the cliff. There is some wedged between the layers of sandstone, and so there's coal crumbling onto the beaches there.

JE: Is your drive to shift the narrative of extraction about going back to this 6000-year-old burning off as a type of naturally occurring form of extraction that counters the human oriented practices that have coopted this same site?  

TK: I’m not sure. It feels like very early days in the project and so I don't know where that particular site fits within the broader research. I guess I've been looking at material excesses and the ways in which excesses, like slag for instance, don't have a function in the way that coal does. And so it becomes an excessive material that operates outside of systems of trade and accumulations of wealth, and I wonder how some of those materials offer a different genealogy of mining that disrupts the more linear capital model of mining. Does that make sense?

JE: Yes, yes, perhaps because this material is harder to define or pin down as it is not as utilitarian or ‘useful’ it can’t be appropriated in the same way?

TK: And it is the stuff that doesn't fit within the dominant narratives of extraction. It's all of the byproducts or loose ends. These loose ends can be reconfigured into a new geology that potentially tells a slightly different story to the ones that the history of coal burning tells us.

JE: Thinking through the potential genealogies that you’re talking about, I’m interested in the multiple strands of your practice and how it engages with this idea. There's a narrative, speculative writing aspect of the practice and then you have a very site-based facet to the way you work, whereby you actually go and you produce kilns, or you interact with specific sites. I’m curious where these two aspects of your working process interface or meet, you do you have a sense of how one feeds the other?

TK: Currently in lockdown they do not meet each other…  

JE: We were going to ask, due to the site-based nature of some of your projects how COVID has impacted your research…

Image ^^^ Therese Keogh, Forge (2020).

TK: This research project is an extension of what I was doing last year. I did a Masters in geography in London and then I came back to Australia very abruptly at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and still had my dissertation to write. I had planned my project around a particular mining site in Europe, in the end the circumstances of the situation just made it impossible. It is interesting having to reimagine what field work looks like when you can't move, or what it means to think spatially when you're stuck in one location that you weren't expecting to be stuck in. So last year when I was suddenly back in Australia, I was living on my Mum’s farm in central Victoria, and I was looking at coal and clinker and I built a forge and I taught myself blacksmithing. I then spent the time that I thought I would be doing field work actually learning this particular material technique. I was then thinking about the forge itself almost like a kind of compressed iteration of the mining site, in that it's producing all of these material conditions through burning, there is this discharge of clinker. This created a set of narrative conditions that I could write through. And so, I wrote that project as a series of letters that were all written through the material excesses of the forge in different ways, to actual and fictionalized collaborators. And that was the geography paper. Is this answering your question?

JE: Yes! During the conversation we had with Ashley Perry he spoke about the limits of institutional access because he's interested in engaging with First Nations objects within museum collections. But he constantly encounters limitations in terms of his access to these collections. In response he has come to create, within his artistic practice, his own way of accessing them through online repositories or accumulated narratives, which can then be redeployed through the artwork as digital renderings or installations. It is interesting being faced with a very different kind of limitation in terms of your access to sites and how you have created this modular approach.

KF: I was also thinking that the narratives from the project and how they are an excess in their own way. It's not an excess that is not useful, in that it's an excess that finds use in other ways that might not be necessarily apparent from the beginning. I imagine this is a metaphor for the slag as an excess that comes from a site that will be used by various other objects or entities for something unknown or not apparent?

TK: I guess it depends what we mean by useful and how do we define usefulness and uselessness?

KF: Perhaps I’m thinking that it's not designed from the beginning, it's somewhat evolving although that’s not quite the right word either, but, perhaps unfolding?

JE: It is more experimental, a kind of unknown, this goes back to the previous question about the interface between the writing and site-based work and the fact that you're unable to access sites, but you can speculate around them, writing allows you to do that. I am curious to know how it has shifted in the past, from say a speculative position, to when you visit the actual place, has that process changed the writing or your approach to thinking about sites?

TK: I think it definitely shifts the writing. Although I've realized that a number of the sites that I've been looking at recently, like the Spoil Grounds, even outside of COVID, they are completely inaccessible, right? The site is three kilometers off the coast and at the bottom of the ocean. To some extent working with that site is always going to be a speculation or a kind of imaginary. I feel like I'm still learning about what the relationship is between actually physically going to sites and this kind of other speculative mode of writing about those sites, it is something that I've been questioning for myself as well.

KF: It is particularly prominent in this moment where it feels like we are either speaking from a place or to a place rather than transferring between. I feel very grounded at the moment in more ways than one. And so the writing that I've been doing is very much located here. I've been writing this essay for un Magazine and it's about a very specific history in WA. And it's not like I've not written for un before, I'm familiar, I used to work for un and I used to live in Melbourne, so more than ever I feel like I'm writing from here to there and I think that has a lot to do with not being able to visit Melbourne.  And when I was reading your text, that was in the most recent un Magazine it felt like it was written to a place and not just a person…

TK: Totally. I think that's what I was interested in when I was writing the letters last year. The epistolary form is such a spatial form of writing especially in the way that letters act in the world. They also signal that feeling of desperately longing to be in proximity to others. During something like lockdown, they offer a kind of closeness across distance. I also think that COVID forces us to think about our relationship to the world on multiple scales at once. Thinking about the domestic in relation to the global is not something I've ever considered prior to the past 18 months but now it's so intensely present that it is a necessary part of daily living.

KF: One of the other artists we talked to, Sacha, has this ongoing series of works that she's been doing before COVID where she sends packages to the gallery that she is exhibiting at. And from gallery to gallery the accumulative packaging of the work becomes the sculpture in this space as a part of the work. The work is quite an obvious and tangible way of thinking about what is picked up along a journey, right? Like the kind of material that's picked up in the correspondence, or the transformation that happens in a physical sense in the sending of information or object, or correspondence, or whatever it is. But it definitely made me think about how our digital interviews have picked things up along the way and it's not immaterial.

TK: I also think writing itself isn't immaterial like no matter what form that writing takes, it has a kind of materiality to it. Through its grammar, through its words or language.  That's something really interesting to me, especially working within the context of academia and writing being a major output of whatever it is that I do in my PhD. I like to think about particular material conditions through writing, at the same time you have to dig deep into the materiality of the writing itself.

KF: How are you reconciling academic writing and your own approach to the materiality of writing in your research?

TK: I guess I've been thinking about the ways that structures of power and things that facilitate mining are the same structures of power that facilitate academia. And so to deal with one, I think it's necessary to deal with the other as well. So to write about extractive industries and excess materials I consider the excesses of academia too, and the ways that some of those excesses can be adopted as writing methods. This might disrupt normative, academic writing or normative research processes to offer other possibilities for thinking and learning. It has somewhat of a dual purpose, especially since I have been thinking a lot about Australia’s national identity as being intertwined with the extraction of coal and trade. There was a Quarterly essay last year that talks about Australia’s export economy and the four top exports for Australia being iron, liquid natural gas, coal and education. When laid out like that it is apparent that they are a part of the same systems, and, in a way, I think writing can do a lot to challenge both at the same time.

KF: I always feel really confronted when the Victorian Government talks about the education system as an export, in in terms of finance, it's one of the most important industries in this state, but it seems like a harsh use of language to talk about humans in these terms. They're not commodities even though they’re treated as commodities, how weird and dehumanizing it is to do that. But then, at the same time, treating and speaking about the earth like that is also very harsh and jarring. 

TK: I totally agree.  It's so confronting to think about education in those terms because it is not the kind of ethics that any of us would want to reproduce through education.

JE: To counter some of the extractive processes it is interesting to approach the excesses of mining and academia as a way to renegotiate assumed narratives. And again, talking to Ashley, we touched on the institutional archive where so much research is deposited and it is this constantly growing repository, which is its own excess too, but where else do you find excesses that you engage with?

TK: Well, I feel like friendship is an excess of academia and that particular relationships are almost generated in spite of the institution, rather than because of it. There are also many possibilities for other modes of collective thinking, working and living within academia that can definitely be generated in excess of it.  

About Therese Keogh:
Therese Keogh is an artist and writer, living and working on the unceded lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation. Her practice operates at intersections between sculpture, geography, and landscape architecture, to produce multilayered projects that explore the socio-political and material conditions of knowledge production. Therese works collaboratively through writing and research projects, including facilitating ‘Incubating Imaginaries’ with Saskia Schut – investigating post-extractive landscapes using interdisciplinary fieldwork methods – and ‘Written Together’ – a collective workshop for non-normative writing in arts research. Therese has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions in Australia and Europe, and has published her writing widely. Therese holds a BFA from Monash University, an MFA from Sydney College of the Arts, and an MA Geography from Queen Mary University of London. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207