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the experts project

the experts project

lara thoms
the experts project

everyday expertise

In The Experts Project Lara Thoms takes the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes to the extreme. She actually convinces people to let her come into their homes where she dons not only their footwear but entire outfits. The participants then document the moment with a photograph.

This penultimate stage of The Experts Project is not just testament to Thoms’ charm and her powers of persuasion but also to the meaningful engagement and level of trust fostered over a series of conversations. The main aim of these chats is to draw out a particular area of expertise, occasionally revealing skills the participant didn’t realise they possessed.

The final part of the process consists of a three-hour performance lecture (the audience is free to come and go) where Thoms presents her findings. The discussions with the experts are distilled into a series of lessons—a list of dos and don’ts—which Thoms reads out when each expert’s number comes up on a ‘chocolate wheel.’

The first time I saw The Experts Project was at the Tiny Stadiums festival in 2011. Thoms presented her work in a small meeting room in the Erskineville Town Hall. It was very low-key, the spinning wheel a rickety analogue affair, the portraits manually selected via computer keyboard and projected on the wall. But the audience was totally engaged, asking probing questions about each expert’s life and, surprisingly, sharing their own stories as well. For the latest manifestation at the MCA, in the brand new seminar room, Thoms has gone a little more hi-tech—the chocolate wheel is hooked up to a computer that automatically triggers the images on two flat screen monitors. The performance I attended, the audience was not so talkative, yet no less intrigued.

Thoms has now gathered the wisdom of over 150 experts from her residencies in Castlemaine in regional Victoria, Melbourne, Minto in Sydney’s south west and now the MCA. The breadth of knowledge is staggering with lessons including how to conduct polyamorist relationships; host a medieval dinner party; look good on camera; slice frozen fish; and even how to enter and exit combat zones.

There is something undeniably fascinating about these micro studies, but it’s hard not to feel queasily voyeuristic. Presenting herself as each expert Thoms offers a certain level of anonymity to her participants, however there is also the potential for parody. Yet in the discussions following each lesson it becomes clear that Thoms’ intentions are above all respectful—and, let’s remember, she didn’t force them to hand their clothes over. The Experts Project is best considered as an entire process of engagement in which Lara Thoms undertakes a playful yet vigorous exploration into how surprising human beings can be, reaffirming that there’s something special in even the most quotidian activities. Gail Priest

Lara Thoms, The Experts Project, Local Positioning Systems curated by Performance Space, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Seminar Room, May 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, ?1- 4.00;

Images: top to bottom - Decorative Toilet Roll Holders, by Shirley Robinson;
When Hairdressing Becomes Counselling, by Ronnie Baroutha; Playing a paedophile on Australian television, by John Flaus.

lara thoms

lara thoms interview
interviewed by gail priest, may 5, 2012

Lara, you’re doing The Experts Project as part of Local Positioning Systems at the MCA with Performance Space. Firstly I wanted to know how The Experts Project came about?

The Experts Project came about two years ago when I began to get interested in alternative forms of pedagogy and knowledge sharing and I landed in a regional library in Castlemaine, Victoria. I sought expertise from people who came to the library seeking knowledge. I set up with a sign saying "expertise desired" and I really wasn’t sure if that would generate much but I ended having some fantastic conversations with quite a cross-section of members of the public. From there it evolved into different forms, different libraries and now to the MCA.

Have you found that it’s different every place that you’ve been in—how many places have you done it in?

I’ve done it in four places [Castlemaine, Melbourne, Minto, Sydney]. It is slightly different. In Minto the library was quite quiet so it was a little bit trickier to talk to people. At the MCA I’m just outside the library. The MCA has just reopened so there’s heaps of people. A lot just curiously come up to me to ask me what I’m doing, and then I snag them. The differences aren’t particularly acute. I thought MCA visitors would be more arty and educated but it’s quite diverse here too.

So how do you find people respond to this supposition that they are experts?

People are curious. Most people don’t consider themselves experts and [so] I encourage them to have a chat about their everyday life and then I pick on something that is quite a specific form of knowledge or skill that I know nothing about, so that it’s certainly expertise for me. Then through that I glean a lesson—knowledge that is unrecognised by them or wider society but is very interesting to me.

And what kind of experts have you come across?

I’ve got over 150 experts but some that have come up recently…I met an expert who’s been running an illegal gay bar in Switzerland for 15 years, so I got some dos and don’ts on that. I met someone who set up his own home church. There’s a lesson about when hairdressing becomes counselling; another lesson about polyamory; writing love songs; or when a marriage is considered genuine in the eyes of the law from someone who has to sit on tribunals for migration. So a big spread of different ideas and knowledge.

How is it that you manage to elicit this information from people?

Good question. I guess I’m not really performing, I’m having a conversation and I’m genuinely curious. I’m also available to share anything [if] they ask me. It’s quite a personal exchange and so that allows me, by the end of the conversation, to see if they’d like to take a portrait of me as them to signify the exchange. I often go from a quite formal setting in an institution and end up back at their house in their clothes. So it’s sort of a normal conversation I’d have with any of my friends.

The Experts Project has a variety of documentations and outcomes as part of the whole process...

The main presentation is a three-hour durational lecture where I set up a spinning wheel with 50 numbers on it, and spin that and when it lands on a number I say the corresponding lesson [and show the] matching photograph. That’s available for people to come in and out of. We sit in a circular formation so I can encourage dialogue and a more casual talk around the topic, not just my interpretation of the expertise. I don’t aim to fully represent the experts, which is why I’m dressed as them. It’s this ill-fitting transformation—I realise I’m never going to have the knowledge that they have.

The photographs have also been presented in a gallery context. I’ve also made a little booklet with some of the lessons and photos to give to the libraries and experts that I’ve worked with.

So you somehow convince these people to let you into their homes and then you dress as them. How do people respond to that request?

At first people are slightly bewildered and then I talk about why I think that relates to the project. And I think by the time that comes up we’ve had a very hearty conversation and they sort of think it would be a nice way to finish off that discussion. When I’m actually in their clothes, there’s definitely this look on most experts’ faces—[they are] a little bit surprised to see me transformed into them.

There’s a certain aspect to the presentation that is slightly difficult as to how the experts are being represented. The kind of detail you go into makes everything seem quite curious. How do you feel about the kind of ‘othering’ of these experts that you present?

Of course with all participatory art, ideas of representation are really present and something I always think about. That’s why I present the expert with a photograph of me, as a bizarre version of them. It’s my diluted version, which I talk about when we’re going through the process. After each lesson, I open it up for discussion so people can ask me questions about the process and the ideas and the expert themselves. I also invite the experts to come to the presentation and I’m pretty sure most of them will come to this one. So I guess I like to keep those complex issues at the centre of it and to talk about it during the presentation.

You did mention that you have a participatory practice. A lot of your work has been with Spat n Loogie and a lot of that has been about a manipulation of the audience, whereas in The Experts Project it’s more about a direct engagement with the people who end up being the work. Is this the direction in which you see your work continuing?

I think I am really interested in working with people. When Spat n Loogie did Pie (2009) at the MCA [RT93] it was a similar thing. We asked members of the public to sit down and have a conversation with an artist and that had another kind of cheeky element of potentially throwing a pie in an artist’s face. That conversational dialogue element has been present for a while and I think that will continue. I’m certainly interested in the possibilities of participatory practices and the grey areas where that awkwardness and misconnection is also sort of highlighted.


selected articles featuring lara thoms

an audience of your making
john bailey: big hart, kage, the rabble, aphids
RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 29

new growth, new directions
josephine skinner: primavera 2009, museum of contemporary art
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 53

contentious cut and paste
megan garrett-jones: nighttime: petty theft, performance space
RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg.

taking on water
adam jasper: the hard party cruise, sydney harbour
RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 38

new humans, beyond meaning
indija mahjoeddin: 2008 next wave
RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 web.

the young & the restless
spat+loogie talk with gail priest
RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 12

shopping & th**king
Barbara Bolt shops at spat & loogie’s new!shop
RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 2