Josh Muir’s WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND exhibition is a collaboration with digital animator Isobel Knowles and cutting-edge experiential design consultancy Art Processors. It has been open since 30 November 2019 at Victoria’s Bendigo Art Gallery.

Josh Muir is a First Nations artist. He uses a fusion of traditional Aboriginal artistry and storytelling with street art. Muir’s work explores his own journey through mental illness. His vivid, geometric, digitally rendered artworks are created on a computer. They are inspired by his heritage, hip hop, comic books and street art. He took the time to speak to Blooloop about the WHAT”S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery:

“It’s a concept I’ve developed for working with the school curriculum. Basically, I want to try and follow up the connection to culture and Country and beneficial mental health. I’m sharing a narrative through an augmented reality interaction, through animation and composition of different chapters I have highlighted.”

Josh Muir at the Bendigo Art Gallery

Josh Muir

These are intense, detailing psychosis, depression, and addiction.

“The prints are on aluminium. Once you hold the iPad up to the artwork, it becomes possible to interact with it digitally. This is through augmented reality and animation.”

The exhibition caters to a wide demographic, says Muir: “Young, old and everyone in between, but mainly the younger generation.”

Josh Muir and mental health advocacy

“I applied for the First Nations inaugural Going Solo exhibition program at the start of the year,” he says. “And I was notified that I was successful as the artist that would exhibit at the art gallery.

“I collaborated with First Nations Curator, Shonae Hobson. We then got Isobel Knowles, the animator, on board. And the Art Processors augmented reality team of five, and then there was me. It is a really large team.

“We collaborated throughout the year and decided to go with this theme and this medium. We feel it appeals to young and old. It has good, powerful messages.”

Muir has been working as a mental health advocate with Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation. “Mental health is a huge talking point in Australia. The title of this exhibition, WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, comes from social media,” he says.

Muir has used it as a prompt to share his own experience. He has been drawing since childhood. It was art that helped him navigate mental illness and grief as a young adult.

Becoming a part of the process

Visitor tablet from Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art GalleryVisitors to Bendigo Art Gallery will bring their own perception to his story, becoming part of the process themselves.

“Being present in the moment, they will be able to absorb it in short timeframes, 30-second clips,” says Muir. “Attention spans and patience are a lot shorter than they once were. I’ve had to consider capturing the attention of a young audience. So, they can absorb information in short episodes, using the iPads, moving through the exhibition so it flows.”

The collaboration with Isobel Knowles and Art Processors has been ideal, he says. It has enabled a deeper exploration of his themes and artistic process:

“Art Processors are very future-forward and forward-thinking. They have afforded another means of interaction, rather than a more traditional way of engaging. I feel like I’ve made an investment in my future with augmented reality.

“I feel, too, that this is going to be an exhibition that determines my future career as an artist. And, maybe, gives me an international platform.”

The Bendigo Art Gallery

Jessica Bridgfoot has been the Director of the Bendigo Art Gallery since June 2019. She was also in a curatorial role there for three years previously.

She describes how Muir’s exhibition encapsulates her vision for the gallery. The landscape of how visitors interact with art, she says, has changed:

“Being in curatorial, I saw the opportunities for us to move into more interactive and digital spaces. Affording a more interactive, personal experience. One that is self-directed, as opposed to the traditional model of the museum. Before, you were told how to interpret artwork or the artist’s intent.

“This exhibition is our first foray into augmented reality.”

Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

In terms of an overall strategy for the organization, she says: “We are focused on new audiences and a younger generation, as well as families. Sometimes we experience parents in their mid to late thirties coming in with their kids. And it is the first time they’ve been into a gallery since they were at school.

“So there’s an opportunity there for us to re-engage with that generation, and for them to bring their kids. To do something like this AR experience, and then, potentially, come back by themselves. There are multiple levels of engagement.”

Bendigo Art Gallery & Josh Muir

“The really important thing about this specific exhibition with Josh Muir is that it shows a new and exciting generation and movement in contemporary Indigenous Australian art,” says Bridgfoot.

“There have been a few key movements. There has been the desert painting movement. And then we’ve seen the very political postcolonial movement, and now we’re seeing artists using traditional motifs and symbols and referencing culture, but through what is almost a street art lens.”

Child looking at Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

“It is genre-defining, and also genre-breaking. People are really taken aback, ‘Oh, this isn’t what my idea of what Indigenous art is.’ So it’s really exciting for us, as well.

“With this show, we’ve crossed a lot of boundaries, which is great.  And this is the start of a new chapter for us. We are now thinking about what else can we do with AR towards decolonising our collection.”

Decolonising the gallery

“We are 135 years old, which is significant in Australia. Bendigo Art Gallery was founded by colonials in the gold rush, in the late 1800s,” says Bridgfoot. “It was very much European/British immigrants who wanted to create a space that was reminiscent of Europe and Britain. To take that culture and plug it in.

“So what we’re doing 135 years later or 133 years later, I should say, is looking back at that collection. We have 5,500 objects. This a significant collection of European and colonial artwork from that period.”

Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

“For years, we’ve just been putting them up on the walls in our historic courts, which are the three original historic rooms of the gallery. And doing so without any thought as to what that means for the visitor coming in, whose experiences in his culture isn’t necessarily represented up on those walls.

“What kind of narratives are we perpetuating? So we have done a bit of work in that space. I did a show called New History. For this, we invited contemporary artists to reimagine those historic works.”

An inspirational exhibition

The WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery is inspirational, says Bridgfoot.

“Now we’re excited about this idea of presenting a series of new narratives through augmented reality. We could explore various perspectives: through a feminist lens, and so on,” she says.

“For us, Josh’s show has been exciting. It has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Both in terms of experiences in Bendigo Art Gallery, and in reinterpreting our collection. We’ve had heaps of school kids and young people in, who heard about it on the radio. They just love it when they’re in the space.”

Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

Describing the exhibition, she says:

“It’s a multi-layered work. Essentially, it’s a room with a series of large, aluminium panel artworks. These borrow from the language of street art. There are characters with overlaying patterns, almost simple computer games-graphic style, and layers of symbols.”

Josh Muir is an artist who draws from his Yorta Yorta, Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wada Wurrung and Barkindji ancestry. He creates his geometric artworks electronically.

The work explores the experience of being a young Indigenous Australian person in a contemporary world. It opens a discourse about mental health and addiction, touching on, as the exhibition’s title implies, how we navigate the current digital culture of oversharing.

Josh Muir and augmented reality

Child looking through tablet at Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery“It’s a really interesting multi-layered exhibition,” says Bridgfoot. “You engage in the augmented reality component through a series of iPads. And you hear Josh ruminating, talking about his culture, history, mental health.

“An Art Processors sound artist has created a beautiful sound element. This links the rawness of Josh’s voice to the slick images. It’s quite obviously digital. But it references sounds from nature, birdsong, making it a very immersive experience.”

Commenting on the collaborative nature of the exhibition, she says:

“Isobel Knowles took characters and motifs from Josh’s still images and animated them. They worked very closely together in that process, and Art Processors mixed and produced the sound. It’s quite wonderful. We’re proud of what Josh has achieved. We are hoping that we’ll be able to get a lot of younger people in the gallery engaging with the work.”

“There were five team members from Art Processors, plus Isobel and Josh. So, seven creative people and the result is completely seamless – it is just amazing.

“For us, it has been great to see such young people working together and producing this. Digital technologies have opened up this whole other creative industry, which is fantastic.  We’d love to work with them, and with other digital creative people as well in the future.”

Digital collaboration

This is the second project on which Isobel Knowles has collaborated with Josh Muir. Through her compelling digital animations, she is concerned with ways of expanding the screen beyond the screen. She tells Blooloop:

“It is about bringing the work, through installation or extension of the screen, into the physical world somehow.”

OF WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, she says:

“Conceptually, this is Josh. It is an exhibition he was asked to do through Bendigo Art Gallery. It explores themes around his mental health and identity as an Indigenous Australian. As well as youth culture and connection to Country. This can be a very healing connection for Indigenous Australians.”

“He produced these eight brilliant drawings, which are digital artworks. From there, we have worked collaboratively with him to figure out a way of bringing those drawings an extra dimension through animation, sound recording and music.”

Strong messages

When Josh Muir, Isobel Knowles and the Art Processors team initially came together on the project, Muir had produced a script of short passages. He subsequently expanded these into an insightful narration. Knowles says:

“It’s a very brave show, I think. They are strong messages addressing the way he was feeling. What he was going through and what each of the pictures means to him. He wanted to have an element of the country that was healing to him, Dja Dja wurrung. We went out to a beautiful place called Mount Buninyong and took lots of photographs.

“I used those photographs to blend with the animations, making a transition from his drawings, which I also animated and brought to life. Those animations melt into these landscape photographs, while he is speaking about them.”

The exhibition draws from youth culture and is replete with colour and immersive tech. It appeals, particularly, to a young, digitally-savvy audience.

“Josh’s personal, honest narration around mental health speaks to young adults,” says Knowles. “It’s incredible to see somebody dealing with these topics in such a powerful way.”

[Art Processors] are an inventive and creative team. They have been brilliant in terms of knowing what’s possible and then creating it

Art Processors collaboration

Working with Art Processors, she says, has been revelatory. “They are an inventive and creative team. They have been brilliant in terms of knowing what’s possible and then creating it. It has been quite mind-blowing working with them and being able to expand my knowledge in this area.”

“I finished a VR stop-motion film last year, which was a massive leap and a whole new learning curve. Now, having worked on this, I’m really inspired by augmented realities.”

Using AR to add meaning

AR, she says, is still in its infancy.

“A lot of the things that are done with it are interesting and really cool. However, they don’t always bring that extra conceptual dimension to something. Here, in this exhibition, this is doing that in a really strong way. You’re getting so much more information by looking at the work digitally.

“There is great scope for looking at the prints just as they are. They are super exciting, something physical that really speaks. But the AR brings that extra layer of meaning and a whole lot of depth. With Art Processors, we worked on a technique where when the iPad is put over the picture, the picture starts moving, but it doesn’t just swirl around in one place: it expands in a Z-axis.”

visitor reading exhibition notes for Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND at Bendigo Art Gallery

“The background moves further back, and the foreground moves towards a dimensional experience. You can walk around the picture, and get a real sense of depth. It’s a bigger world, and it does that in a very explicit way.”

First Nations Curation at Bendigo Art Gallery

Shonae Hobson, First Nations Curator at the Bendigo Art Gallery

Shonae Hobson

Shonae Hobson is the First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery. It is one of the only regional galleries in Australia that has a permanent First Nations dedicated position. “Having a First Nations curator is important within these institutional spaces,” she says. 

There is, she adds, an immense amount of cultural knowledge required when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, therefore it’s important that Indigenous peoples are the ones shaping the narratives that pertain to our art and culture

“I have been working at Bendigo Art Gallery for almost two years now and have seen the positive impact my role has had on bringing more First Nations voices into the gallery space,” she says.

“Through the implementation of dedicated First Nations programs as well as exhibitions, we have been able to shed light on some of the incredible work happening across our communities and also tell our stories in culturally respectful and appropriate ways.”

Going Solo

The Going Solo exhibition series offers artists living and working in regional Victoria the opportunity to produce a significant body of work for exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

It is an annual event, designed to highlight diverse practices of contemporary artists from the region and their contribution to the cultural landscape. Artists are selected by a committee following an open call process.

“This year, we opened it up to First Nations artists living and working in regional Victoria,” Hobson says. “Part of that was to give our First Nations artists working regionally the opportunity to exhibit at the gallery and to showcase the amazing work that they’re doing in their communities.”

Josh Muir at his WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery

“In 2019, the Bendigo Art Gallery selected Josh Muir. What we really loved about his work was not only his message as a young person dealing with mental health issues but how his art pushes the boundaries of what people consider to be Indigenous art.

“He takes a lot of inspiration from street art, pop culture and youth references. He merges that together to create something really amazing. But he also draws on his journey as an Indigenous man, living in an urban environment.”

Josh Muir, street art and digital animation

Josh Muir would talk about catching the train from Ballarat, which is about two hours’ train ride to Melbourne, says Hobson. “He saw all the graffiti and street art on the sides of the trains and the buildings. This is where his interest in the street art aesthetic really developed,” she says.

“Josh had worked with digital animator Isobel Knowles on an exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust in 2018. They’ve got a great relationship, so I suggested that we team Josh up with Art Processors.”

Hobson previously worked with Art Processors on the AWAKEN exhibition, which is currently on show at the University of Melbourne’s Arts West Gallery. This show was curated by Genevieve Grieves in 2018.

Josh Muir's WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

“I thought that Josh’s aesthetic, which is bold and colourful, would translate nicely into the augmented reality experience. And, with the exhibition planned for the Christmas period, we saw this as an opportunity to engage our younger demographic. The exhibition encourages young people to learn about Indigenous art and culture through a new lens,” she says.

“It has been a pleasure to work with the team at Art Processors. They were culturally sensitive throughout the exhibition development and really captured the essence of Josh’s narrative.”

 WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND is at the Bendigo Art Gallery until 12 April 2020.

Images kind courtesy of Bendigo Art Galley.