An email conversation between writer Jessica Alice and artist Esther Anatolitis on her exhibition INDEX-SYSTEM.
Jessica Alice: Hi Esther, congratulations on INDEX-SYSTEM, I found it so evocative and I'm
excited for this conversation!
I told you in a text response after opening night that this work made me feel like I was
invited into your mind palace – that the mailboxes created this sense of voyeurism into an
internal geography and it felt intimate. Did it feel this way for you too, in both the larger
scale of developing INDEX-SYSTEM the project, and in the process of curating its public
Esther Anatolitis: I'm so glad it evoked so much for you! And I too love a good
correspondence. So stimulating to think through our work within the contexts in which we
create our work, connecting with one another among other compositions, other words. (I
have a fifteen-year handwritten correspondence with a past collaborator, now a close
friend, and our letters appear in INDEX-SYSTEM.)
Your very first question here has been preoccupying me for a little while in fact. I was quite
unprepared for the intimacy that the work conveys, and yet it's been the one response that
people have felt most compelled to make. You're right: the framing of the mailboxes, with
their dark woods and subtle spotlights, make for quite the voyeuristic experience. You have
to peer right in, and even then, you're not quite sure what you're seeing.
What I hope the most is that the work will be approached as a text: for interpretation, for
connotation, and indeed, for reading. It's more of a guide or a set of tools than an insight
into my mind... and yet that's a response I am taking seriously. I delight in the unexpected. I
actively find ways to generate what I can't yet imagine.
That is perhaps one way of understanding how INDEX-SYSTEM as a whole works for me,
JA: The mailboxes are so unassuming yet powerful in their ability to imbue this feeling!
Perhaps another reason for your audiences’ feelings of intimacy with the work is that our
own practical systems are rarely made public. Mine, for instance, is embarrassingly
shambolic! When I look through my work I have to wade through a digital pile of scattered
pages. By sharing yours however, you demonstrate system-making as more than a good
organisational habit, it is this creative tool – structure creates opportunity for reflection,
joining and making additional threads.
And reflection is often treated as a final step in a process, or outside of an activity, but I see
it as integral to your work. How has it become such a significant part of your creative
EA: Ah now this is interesting... It's true: we do tend to shy away from our own process
ephemera as a detritus of the work, an unwelcome byproduct, an embarrassing
incompleteness. And yet completeness rarely asks as many questions as the open, the
unresolved, the hastily written – and the long forgotten. Most people hate the sight of their
own handwriting; I love the textures that my handwritten words make across the page... I
am about to start the next volume of my stream-of-consciousness journals – the twenty-
third since 1999 – and I prize each one of these as writerly objects, as textual textures, just
as much as what they contain.
I have been working on a project called INDEX-SYSTEM since the late 1990s. It began as a
metadata system for marking up unresolved ideas such that they could be shared with
others. Back then the question was: How does collaboration happen, and in particular, how
does it happen across disciplines? The year I spent at the Bauhaus was very much an
exploration of this question. If we come to a collaboration with ideas already resolved, then
they risk sitting there inertly as self-contained objects, rather than coalescing with others.
Between that period and now, having created sole and collaborative work in short film,
experimental sound, public programming, live art and text, a critical mass of my own
thinking had begun to emerge. The system part of the INDEX-SYSTEM only came to me late
the year before last, and then I spent last year creating the first iteration of the index, which
remains an open project of course because I keep making more notes, mind-maps,
drawings, paintings and object collections as I work.
I had always been a writer – I had always experienced a profound sense of presence and
communion and dazzlingly animating potential in writing, most particularly in working with
my hands – and I write every day. I create the conditions where I can experience the
duration of forming meaningful sentences, and as I experience myself doing this – watching
the words appear, hearing their sounds and seeing their forms – I am stimulated and
inspired. I think some of this is about having English as a second language: I see letters and
hear words in parallel to understanding their meaning. For this reason, I am enamoured
with the work of Joseph Conrad, or Jacques Derrida, or Jorge Luis Borges: writers who
clearly delight in working beyond their first language. This lifelong learning is a joy to me:
that I will continue to discover new things about each of the languages in which I work and
communicate and make work, because none of them are native, and therefore the structure
and the meaning is always a live negotiation. The reflection is not a matter of choice,
JA: That idea of a negotiation of meaning brings me back to the items in the mailboxes: the
measuring instruments in particular as literal tools, and the boxes like an organisation of
semantic fields or even brain hemispheres!
It also makes me think of your performance at the opening of the exhibition, where you
thumbed through a cardfile box and rearranged items. I love this enactment of process, not
only of how one may make practical use of her index system, but of how creativity and
learning are occurring on (what I imagine as) a physiological level. (Have you ever seen that
video of Bjork explaining how televisions work??)
Writers in particular strike me as averse to the incompleteness of ‘process ephemera’, as
opposed to other artistic communities, and perhaps because of this we struggle against
isolation. Do you think that’s true? Could an interdisciplinary and collaboration approach be
something that’s missing?
EA: [Googles "björk television"]
It's true: as writers we tend to overlook everything that's not a pen and a paper, or a set of
fingers and a keyboard, when we consider the elements of our practice. There's the
isolation of writing, which is not generally something that can be performed, but there's
also the lack of a messy paint-splattered studio, or piles of recording and editing technology,
or sets and costumes long forgotten in a corner. In performing the sorting and displacing, I
wanted to set my own hands very clearly as part of the exhibited work – which was why, on
opening night, I started off talking about how writing is something we do with our hands.
The measuring instruments, the writing tools, the gloriously polished celestite which seems
to glisten more the more it is handled, the slightly crumpled paper with notes written clearly
in haste and on the first loose sheet found, and of course, the index cards themselves which
exist at the scale of the palm. I learnt quite a bit in those moments of cramming into the
final mailbox, and I'm excited about what I'll learn as I deinstall and set the objects back into
their boxes or locations.
I've long had a practice of drawing an item out of the objects box at random, drawing it to a
high level of detail, using the duration of that process to rethink the object's meaning, then
writing about it, and replacing it in inevitably a different place in the alphabetical scheme,
responding to what has now been evoked for me. This is one of my constructive disruption
exercises, but the book in which I draw and write them is fast becoming a work of its own.
Not all writers are interested in collaboration, but writing itself is essentially
interdisciplinary. It is interdisciplinarity. It creates meaning, never anew, always in context,
never in isolation, always alone. Solitude is a powerfully constructive force in my life,
JA: This correspondence is itself performative – soon it will be made public in the format of
an interview – but the process of its composition is solitary and as private as letter writing. I
find this tension so interesting (and enjoyable!), and it somehow alters my experience – I am
more aware of process, of the way we exchange ideas.
You will be a keynote speaker at Performing, Writing in 2017. What is it about performance
that changes writing/the writer?
EA: Oh I know... Isn't this delicious, this writerly parallel to our relationship. And soon there
will be readers, with their own responses.
I'm keen to start thinking about Performing, Writing. It's a very generative proposition I
think. Performance requires a certain style and register of writing, but writing for
performance is just one aspect of the symposium. Performing writing is something we rarely
do, and something we always do, except that we undervalue the banality of the professional
writing that occupies most of the working day for so many of us. We need to take a more
deliberate interest in what we actually produce each day: the writing we render disposable,
the meaning we create, the words we choose. Banality is woefully underrated, and yet it's
the daily practice than can be most transformative.
I would very much like to stage a writing performance of scale: a critical mass of solitary
writers working in the public space. Now that I have written this, it will happen – such is the
power of the written word. From 4:00-6:00pm on Thursday 21 April on the front lawn, front
steps or front anything of every library in the country, with the largest group outside the
State Library of Victoria as the City of Literature's finest escape the Wheeler Centre for the
afternoon. Hey spread the word, dear reader, because this is totally a thing now, and I will
make the Facebook event, which will entrench this public action onto our consciousness,
JA: Marvellous! Coincidentally, I'll be in Berlin at the time and will be glad to act as an
You mentioned that you delight in the unexpected – such as the development of this writing
performance and, earlier, that common experience of intimacy. Has the act of exhibiting
INDEX-SYSTEM challenged your assumptions in other ways about the project? Has it created
EA: Oh yes. Yes it certainly has. One of my closest friends saw it on the weekend, and
because he knows me so well, he was straight into reading it as a text. He looked closely at
the sequence, starting with PRESENCE to INTIMACY and THE POLITICAL, as being both civic
feminist and also personal. He also remarked on three clear compositional elements that
were a genuine surprise to me: Firstly, the recurrence of circles and spirals in the Super 8,
the measuring tapes, the small woven piece, the celestite sphere. Then the references to
the line, to drawing the line, in the writing instruments, on every index card and especially
the blank one, and of course in the neatly incomplete blue line. And finally, the hand of the
writer, on every handwritten card, but most distinctly, on the crumpled piece of notepaper,
whose shadows mark the hand's absent presence in creating the paper's form, as well as its
Before exhibiting INDEX-SYSTEM, my process of accidental discovery around it was to
choose volumes or objects at random and re-read or draw – and it was just that: a process.
By creating a composition or a sequence, and then offering it for interpretation in a public
space, accidental discovery has become both accident and discovery. And yet, it's my work.
And so this is at the very heart of why experimentation turns me on so much. The sense of
discovery that emerges in recomposing the known, the seemingly known, within a system
seemingly self-contained, seemingly logical. Language is endlessly open, reconfigurable and
Jessica Alice is a writer, editor and broadcaster from Melbourne. View her writing and work at jessicaalice.net