By Sean Mulcahy
Tom Nicholson’s Towards a Monument to Batman’s Treaty was the artwork for the 2017 Conference of the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia. The installation, which comprised strewn chimney bricks surrounded by possible memorial plaques, was strangely fitting. The as-yet-unrealised nature of the work, with its strewn materials and multiple possible plaques, seemed to reflect the theme of law, literature and the humanities as constantly in a process of developing, perennially incomplete: all afford different interpretations and all are inherently creative. Indeed, art infused the conference in many different ways and herein I look at three examples.
Carolyn McKay spoke about her work Model Prison, a video installation that depicted a virtual prison with an actor inside who paced, bent, stretched and crouched. McKay’s work explored the sensorial and kinaesthetic dimensions of incarceration. The medium of video necessitated a removal of bodily presence, with the body digitally encased and hermetically sealed on screen. The work was accompanied by an ambient audioscape that, like the movement, was repetitive and looped. The placement of the screens in the art space forced the audience to bend down to see, emulating the contortions of the body in the film.
Marett Leiboff refigured Brown v Tasmania, a legal challenge to anti-protest laws, as an embodied quasi-theatrical performance. Leiboff posited that many of the judges had lived through times of great protest, that this exposure to protest created an image in their mind’s eye, and that this image became a memory embedded in the judicial body. Judgment could, if we follow Leiboff’s provocations, be seen as a mode of method acting, whereby the judge draws from emotional memory to perform judgment. In her presentation, Leiboff moved about her stage as if driven by a Grotowskian impulse and, in so doing, reminded the audience of the connection between legal thought and the body.
Finally, Laura-Jane Maher provided a close reading of a medical treatment case, Re Lucas. The opening paragraphs of the judgment described how ‘the tension in the courtroom was palpable’; focussed on the facial and other expressions of the audience; and explored the material impact on bodies in court. Maher advanced the idea of judgments as autobiography, with judges using judgments to articulate their experiences as readers. However, this thesis was disputed in the ensuing discussion. Perhaps what was happening here was not the judge engaging in autobiography but rather attempting a biography – perhaps even a painting – of the courtroom itself.
What it was to be in the courtroom during Re Lucas – the tears, the touch, the tension – can now only be felt through words. Indeed, as Thom Giddens writes, ‘in reducing artistic and creative works into textual accounts, encoding cultural experiences and ontologies into sentences and paragraphs, something is lost’ (2017: 377). Yet most papers in this conference moved beyond words to interrogate images, films and art and, in some cases, to perform. There was a real, sustained and exciting engagement with different artistic forms, collapsing false dichotomies between law and culture. The choice of Nicholson’s artwork, which reads as a collapsed wall, was especially prescient for this boundary-breaking conference.
Sean Mulcahy is a PhD candidate at the School of Law, University of Warwick and the Centre for Theatre and Performance, Monash University. He is also a collaborator with the Art/Law Network
More detailed reflections on the conference will be forthcoming in Exchanges
Giddens, Thom (2017) ‘Book Review: Cultural Legal Studies: Law’s Popular Cultures and the Metamorphosis of Law, edited by Cassandra Sharpe and Marett Leiboff’, Law & Literature, 29(2), 377-379
Leiboff, Marett (forthcoming) ‘Theatricalizing Law’, Law and Literature
McKay, Carolyn (2017) ‘Model Prison’, The Annual Review of Interdisciplinary Justice Research, 6, 230-235