After 10 years, the Brown Council has some sound advice for Sydney artists: “You’ve got to smash it.”

Frances Barrett, who along with Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley and Diana Smith forms the longstanding performance art collective, believes that any chance of making it in Australia’s art capital depends on pulling one’s finger out. “Sydney’s an expensive city,” she says. “So you’ve got to decide that if you want to be here, you’ve got to work hard.”

The four artists can’t be accused of not pulling their weight - in fact, they’ll often stretch their own bodies to the point of exhaustion, madness and physical illness for the sake of their work. In last year’s Mass Action: 137 Cakes in 90 Hours, the women baked, without sleeping, for 90 hours solid. Not surprisingly, they hallucinated. “I remember that time, I never had heavier feet,” recalls Doley. “We decided to get those shoes they wear on MasterChef so if you drop a knife, you don’t cut your toe off. But those boots became like lead. I’ve never felt like that before.”

“We couldn’t eat butter for a very long time,” Barrett adds.

But unlike some grotesque Guinness World Record attempt, the near-impossible tasks the Council sets themselves aren’t devised merely for the sake of it. Instead, they hope to explore a supposedly simple concept by extending it beyond its normal boundaries. “If you do it repeatedly over a long period of time, that very simple task takes on a number of different meanings or moods,” says Doley. “It stretches and pulls at the constraints of that idea. It can become grotesque or ugly.”

In Mass Action, for example, the formerly innocuous pastime of baking a cake becomes almost torturous; in One Hour Laugh the spontaneous joy of laughter becomes an unsettling trial for performer and viewer alike. Nevertheless, the Brown Council know what they’re in for. “Our body is our medium, in a way. If it suits the concept or the artwork, we’re absolutely willing to go there, 100 per cent,” Doley says.

One of the contradictions of the Brown Council is that while watching four women bake until they’re sick doesn’t sound particularly funny, their artworks are as interested in comedy as they are in feminist critique. Smith explains that the group spends a lot of time traversing the ground between art and entertainment. “Seinfeld says ‘To laugh is to be dominated.’” quotes Smith. “Certainly, we use humour as a tool to draw an audience in. Once you’ve got an audience laughing, you’ve got them.”

A 2010 work, A Comedy very directly pushed the boundaries of ‘bad taste’ in comedy, challenging the audience to consider what motivates their laughter. “You can highlight the reason they’re laughing,” explains Barrett. “Are they laughing at the humiliation you’re enduring? Are they laughing at the sexist jokes you’re telling? Are they laughing at you hurting another person? To implicate them in the performance through their laughter was the main motivation of Comedy.”

The Brown Council’s latest work, This is Barbara Cleveland, has seen the group investigate a ‘forgotten’ and ‘legendary’ Australian performance artist. Cleveland “was one of the first Australian performance artists to mix feminist ideas in the early 1970s. We were very interested in her work,” says Smith. “She’s kind of disappeared from the pages of history. There’s all this mystery surrounding her death.”

Cleveland’s life and work will be investigated by the group with documentary videos, staged lectures and recreations of her performance pieces, all apparently discovered in a recently unearthed and previously unseen archive. The question as to whether Cleveland might in fact be a work of mischief herself is answered with a laugh. “We believe she’s real!” says Smith.

Regardless of the subject’s fictitious status, the project gives the Brown Council an opportunity to explore the group’s relationship to the people who came before them. Re-enacting previously performed works is one method of acknowledging influences while examining change. “It’s like a different work,” explains Doley. “It becomes more like a set of instructions, but it might not have the same intention or emotional feeling behind it as the original.”

‘A shared language,’ is how the women often describe the way Brown Council works. As friends and colleagues, they’ve figured out ways of overtly testing their relationships as a technique to produce new art. “We came together because we were very good friends. Performance naturally came out of our friendship,” says Barrett. “And over 10 years, we’ve naturally consolidated our performance and our friendship. We’re just a very well-oiled machine.”

Doley reiterates: “And we’re still friends! There’s always a new spark or a new direction to continually keep us all interested.”

While the group has just returned from a month-long residency in Berlin, chances are they won’t be abandoning Sydney for Brooklyn anytime soon. “This idea that you’ve got to go overseas and validate yourself and come back with all your new knowledge,” says Smith. “I think that’s still very much the mentality of Australian artists, but I think we have a very exciting scene here.”

Brown Council’s This is Barbara Cleveland is showing for the 10th anniversary of Performance Space from November 20 to December 1, 2013.

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