Alison Bennett: Queering the Paradigm

© Alison Bennett, Megan Beckwith, and Mark Payne ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016

We are shifting from knowing the world through photographs to finding ourselves enmeshed within the architecture of the image.


Queer, an originally pejorative term, was reclaimed by activists in the 1980s and subsequently theorised and politicised to become a rich and radical way of interpreting the world. A broad term that embraces the range of non-heterosexual, non-cisgendered ways of being, it is dynamic and porous rather than structurally categorical. As such, its influence on ways of thinking and understanding reach beyond issues of sexuality, sex, and gender identity to the ways in which we conceive the nature of personhood, social relation, and our sense of reality itself. Since all we know of the world is what we receive through our senses and interpret in the neural networks of our brain, our perception of reality is an abstract construction; a construction moulded by the dominant attitudes and opinions that surround us – a habit as much as a habitation. One of the aspects of a queer perspective is that it makes clear the nature of those constructions in ways that empower the individual to a more active involvement in their creation, expression, or rejection.

In its relatively short lifetime, photography has been a continuously evolving and multifarious medium, its birth celebrated in the announcement of two quite different processes neither of which actually mark its invention or acknowledge its inventor. With each technological and aesthetic phase, a generation adopts the new as a truer form of the medium. Yet it takes an effort of will for the championing of the new to resist the consolidation of habit that in turn becomes suspicious of ensuing iterations of reinvention and innovation.

For the Australian artist Alison Bennett, it is at the intersection of photography’s protean practices and the dynamic of a queer perspective that new visual expressions find their interrogative form. Importantly, in the projects we discuss here, Alison Bennett encourages the active engagement of viewers through immersion, interaction, and installation within the fabric of the community. They are works that describe the world of human experience not as a paradigm into whose patterns we must learn to fit, but a burgeoning ecology of possibility within which we may each find our own distinctive ways of being, knowing, and interconnecting.

Alasdair Foster

© Alison Bennett, Megan Beckwith, and Mark Payne – still from ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016


You describe your practice as ‘expanded photography’. What is expanded photography and what draws you to this approach to artmaking?

Photography is expanding on a number of fronts. In the twenty-first century, the photographic image is part of ubiquitous computing, expanding its applications and reach. It exists as a digital file that can be reconstituted on a screen anywhere in the world. Online, that image does not stand alone but is part of an interconnected mesh that links images together through functions such as Google ‘search by image’. The photographic moment has extended with looping GIFs and the motion-photo option on a cell phone. The photographic image itself is expanding from a flat surface, a two-dimensional frame, to a thickened field with depth, allowing the viewer to change focus, perspective, and even see around corners…

The expanded photography technique that I have explored the most is photogrammetry, a process that builds three-dimensional models from a large set of photographic images. Photogrammetry software analyses shifts between elements in the foreground and background to calculate relative position in much the same way we perceive depth and space with two eyes.

© Alison Bennett, Megan Beckwith, and Mark Payne – still from ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016

How did ‘Virtual Drag’ begin?

On something of a whim, an intuitive leap. I was prompted by a comment on the Prosthetic Knowledge blog about the virtuality of drag and, discussing this one lunchtime with the choreographer and digital designer Megan Beckwith, we decided the idea had legs. We were joined by graphic designer Mark Payne and made a successful application for funding to the Australia Council for the Arts.

How was it made and how is it experienced by the viewer?

We invited three drag queens and three drag kings to be ‘scanned’ and then set about figuring out how to get the photogrammetry models into a 3D game engine that could be viewed on a VR headset. Mark Payne contributed the sound design and Megan Beckwith’s experience as a choreographer proved invaluable when staging these figurative virtual encounters in digital space.

Bored by the presentation of virtual reality projects at that time, we decided to build a physical presentation set in the form of a make-up table into which the viewer could step. This was facilitated by the artists who wore pink aprons like hairdressers or beauticians, further blurring the lines between the so-called virtual and physical.

[Left] visitor with headset viewing ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016
[Right] installation view ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016

Inside the head-mounted VR display, the viewer dropped into a digital landscape populated by gigantic twitching iterations of the drag queen Philmah Bocks. The scene then transitioned to a snow world featuring the ice queen Art Simone. The Transylvanian Gypsy Kings occupied a creaking gothic mansion and, in the closing minutes of the journey, the hot mess that is Jackie Hammer lurched out of the darkness.

What ideas did you and your colleagues seek to explore in this work?

The project began intuitively. But it became a means of investigating the proposition that queer theory – specifically the drag concept of ‘realness’ – offered useful frameworks to think through the emergence of virtual reality as a medium.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposed a collapse of the distinction between the real and the simulation. As the gender critic Judith Butler has argued, gender is a simulacrum, a consolidation of culturally constructed ideals. Drag realness undermines the ontological status of every identity, especially gender identity, by revealing the imitative and fictive structure of identity – and thence of every reality. VR is just another structural proposition.

© Alison Bennett, Megan Beckwith, and Mark Payne – still from ‘Virtual Drag’ 2016

Why did you retain the glitchy quality in the finished work?

Several reasons. But principally we were railing against the ‘tech bros’ who were adamant that our workflow would not work. Indeed, this work would not have come about via the conventional digital design workflows of the time. Megan, Mark, and I adopted an unconventionally queer team structure that allowed us to make creative and technical breakthroughs. Part of that involved intentionally stepping away from the highly polished aesthetic that dominated the field at that time.

How was the work received?

The project hit a nerve when it was launched at the Midsumma Festival in 2016. For years after that, it was in demand at festivals around the globe, including the Videonale Festival at the Kunstmuseum, Bonn; CinemaQ in Shanghai; Twist360 in Seattle; and Rencontres Internationales at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

‘Virtual Drag’ is still available as a 360 video here.

© Alison Bennett – still from ‘Muliebrity’ 2017

‘Muliebrity’ addresses sexuality and appearance in a different way to ‘Virtual Drag’. First, what is muliebrity?

The word ‘muliebrity’ simply means ‘female qualities’. This was a work about queer femme identity, an identity that emphasises hyper-femininity.

How did this work come about?

I was commissioned by the City of Kingston, a suburban area of greater Melbourne, to make a moving-image work for presentation during the 2019 Midsumma Festival of queer arts. The work was made in response to the site: a glass-enclosed walkway connecting two municipal buildings, simply called The Bridge. I imagined gigantic figures emerging out of darkness and pressing their faces against the glass, looking out onto the busy road below.

At the same time, I was also invited to exhibit in the adjacent Kingston Arts Centre where I mounted the work as a stereoscopic 3D projection with a sound design by Greg Penn. In the gallery space, viewed with simple red and blue stereoscopic glasses, the figures appeared as three-dimensional volumes floating out of deep space beyond the surface of the walls.

© Alison Bennett – time-lapse recording of the on-site installation of ‘Muliebrity’ 2017

How was the work created?

I shot the work looking out into my backyard at night. The subjects walked out of the darkness and pressed their faces to the glass sliding door. For the stereoscopic projection I used two cameras mounted side by side to mimic the binocular effect of our two eyes for perceiving depth.

How did the work and the location come together?

Much of my work about queer identity has occupied queer contexts and spaces. Talking to a femme friend who lived in Kingston, she reflected on the paradox that when expressing her femme identity in a mainstream context, her queerness became invisible. It is something of a stereotype that lesbians and queer women express their gender identity in ways that might be considered as androgynous, masc, or butch. But there are also those that feel most authentic when they express their gender in more traditionally feminine ways. This work sought to provoke the viewer to consider how they read expressions of identity, to not assume heterosexuality as a default.

© Alison Bennett – on-site still of ‘SKIN: Neuroqueer Entanglement’ 2019

How did ‘SKIN: Neuroqueer Entanglement’ come about?

It was commissioned by Melbourne Fringe producer Patrick Hayes who wanted a major work that engaged with themes of disability. I had long harboured the desire to wrap the ‘skin’ of a building in tattooed skin. The Digital Façade in Melbourne’s Federation Square (aka the Fed Square big screen) gets close to that with a screen extending around two sides of a structure called the Shard. The work was made with high resolution scans of tattooed skin from a flatbed scanner. The images were animated to ‘shrug’ across the uniquely designed shape of the Digital Façade that is embedded in the surface of the architecture, and featured a soundscape by neuroqueer indigenous artist, Diimpa.

I had observed, while working on a previous project on tattooed skin, that many of the subjects who had been drawn to participate identified as both queer and neurodivergent. Indeed, I would argue that the two are interwoven. The term ‘neuroqueer’ has been adopted internationally to describe this intersection.

What is meant by neurodivergent?

It is a concept developed in 1998 by the Australian autism advocate Judy Singer. It is a social and civil rights movement that positions neurological difference and diversity – autism and ADHD for example – as a political identity, not a medicalised deficit. Neurodiversity is more than a psychological consideration. Disability discourse invokes the concept of body and mind as inseparable and co-forming: bodymind. Autism is often marked by wildly divergent sensory profiles that, in turn, shape consciousness in unique and atypical ways. It’s very queer!

© Alison Bennett and Diimpa – ‘SKIN: Neuroqueer Entanglement’ installed on The Shard, Federation Square, Melbourne. 2019

For many years, I have been open about my autistic lived experience, along with my queer identity, as a form of political activism, of claiming and making space. It has been particularly important in my role as an academic to be public about this. Students find it revelatory and empowering to have the person of authority in front of them speak about these identities without shame or hesitation.

In this work, I specifically wanted to consider the common autistic experience of entangled embodiment – the sense of the body merging with the environment. Projecting images of the surface of skin onto a building was an expression of this entangled extension of the body with the environment.

In a public space like Federation Square there is little opportunity to explain the ideas behind an artwork; for most viewers it stands alone. How did you negotiate the question of creating meaning or affect for the viewer?

I loved that the work did not demand to be watched like a narrative film. It occupied the space independent of an attentive audience, like a gigantic creature existing alongside the people passing through the space. When people connected with the work, it was more like parallel play between them, of co-presence, rather than that of spectator and screen.

One of my favourite moments was during the Australia Football League semi-finals. A crowd had gathered in anticipation of the game being screened on the Digital Façade, meanwhile they were subjected to giant wriggling tattoos. “What is this!” I heard an indignant voice exclaim, but they stayed through the entire piece. They said to their companion: “Well, that was cool. I liked the tattoos.”

© Alison Bennett – still from ‘vegetal/digital’ 2020

How did ‘vegetal/digital’ come about?

It arose out of the psychological impacts of the long Covid-19 lockdowns in Melbourne during 2020 and 2021. There was a time when we could only leave the house for one hour a day to exercise, in an area restricted to within five kilometres of home. My child and I took to walking around the empty streets looking at flowers. They took on a vibrant intensity and I found myself perceiving plants in new ways. Things got strange. I coped by going with it, by not resisting the changes to my physiological state that took me into new territory. I became aware of plants as living entities that were sensing me, just as I was sensing them.

In 2020, I was also introduced to two important technical concepts that propelled my practice to a new place. The first was webXR, which allows social interaction online in a 3D environment with spatialised sound. The second was the point-cloud file format, which fascinated me in its potential for presenting objects as points of light, like clouds of stars or pulsating electrons. It also solved the problem of lumpy photogrammetry models, enabling me to render the delicate complexity of plants and flowers.

Do you see this as a conceptual continuation with your previous work, or a change of direction?

In some senses, it was an acceleration into the realm of siding with the non-human world of plants. This was consistent with my alignment with queer and autistic politics, of siding with the object. Increasingly, queer cultural practices are employing new materialism and posthumanism to interrogate the agency of things and the culturally constituted hierarchies of objects and subjects.

© Alison Bennett – ‘vegetal/digital’, visitor’s view while operating the gesture interface. 2020

While this work includes large digital prints, the central element is an interactive, gesture-controlled video projection.

This came closest to what I wanted to communicate. That is: just as I was attuning to plants, they were also sensing me. The engagement was shared. The gesture interface created an experience that felt collaborative and embodied beyond a passive visual perception.

I was moved by the profound impact the interactive iteration that ‘vegetal/digital’ had on people. Several described it as deeply meditative and calming, like holding a tai chi ball of energy. Attuning to the work brought them into a sense of presence and encounter with something bigger than themselves.

We began by talking about an expanded understanding of photography. Much of your work explores expanded understandings of seeming and being. Do you sense, in this general move towards embracing fluidity, complexity, diversity, uncertainty, ambiguity… a deeper underpinning philosophical or conceptual trend?

I think that the technological ecology of the twenty-first century has wrought a profound reconfiguration of the architecture of the image. We are shifting from knowing the world through photographs to finding ourselves enmeshed within the architecture of the image.

I am also sensing a profound reconfiguration of our relationship with photographic images, a reconception of how images operate that I am still working to comprehend and articulate. Whilst theoretical frameworks such as representation and the gaze were necessary within the cultural–political contexts of the twentieth century, I wonder if we need to revisit our frameworks to make sense of this current moment. If the map does not fit the territory, we need to redraw the map.

© Alison Bennett – still from ‘vegetal/digital’ 2020

Biographical Notes

Alison Bennett was born in Cronulla, New South Wales, in 1968. They received a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from UNSW College of Fine Arts, Sydney (1989), a master’s degree in fine art from Monash University, Melbourne (2009), and a doctorate in creative practice from Deakin University, Melbourne (2017). They are currently Associate Dean Photography in the School of Art of RMIT University, Melbourne. Their work has featured in numerous solo and group presentations in venues and events across Australia and overseas including Ars Electronica, Linz (Austria), The Louvre, Paris (France), and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA). Their work is held in a number of prestigious public collections including the National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Historic Houses Trust, NSW; the City of Greater Geelong regional public collection; and Deakin University Art Gallery, Melbourne. Awards for collaborative projects include the Innovative Use of Digital Media award 2016, and the Portrait Prize 2015, both from the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne. Alison Bennett lives and works in Melbourne.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.