Growing and Living: Sophie Allan on Chart Collective

Chart Collective explores the way the stories of Australian people are woven into the Australian environment – publishing in text, image and sound formats as well as running live events. We caught up with editor-in-chief Sophie Allan to discuss the genesis, aims and aspirations of this innovative, Melbourne-based publishing venture.

Image: Chart Collective (supplied)

Chart Collective (L–R): Colin Trechter, Jocelyn Richardson, Phil Marshall and Sophie Allan (supplied)

Tell us, what led you to form Chart Collective and what’s Chart Collective out to do?

I could reel off a million defining moments in my life that have involved one or both of the two essential elements of Chart: place and words/art. Here's one: my paternal grandfather was a journalist (like his father, his son and his sister), who spent his working life deeply dedicated to the news, and then his retirement looking through a set of binoculars, monitoring the whales, tides and weather of the northern New South Wales coastline. He never took me aside and told me what he knew, but my sense of myself and the world was pieced together in the presence of the books that lined his shelves, the clear-eyed and cynical conversations about politics and the news I overheard him have and the sensitive way he observed and knew the place where he lived. It was all melded together in who he was, and I feel it, too, in who my father is, and through them I have this sense of the relationship between words and physical experience in space, I think.

We feel the expression of a person's relationship to their place is often so sensory and so abstract, that if we want to really explore it we can't just stick to words and images.

I suppose that this is at the heart of what Chart sets out to do: to draw connections between the creative, intellectual and environmental experiences we have as people. I think that exploring the ways that these things are connected has really big implications for the understanding we have of our role in relation to ecosystems and to other people. I think it has implications for the choices we make as individuals and as a society, and where we perceive value to lie.

How did you approach bringing other people (editors, then artists/writers) into Chart? And what are the creative and logistical challenges of working across so many different forms of storytelling?

Initially I thought (the then-nameless) Chart was going to be a printed journal of walking essays. At that point I had no idea how to get something like this happening, but I knew there was no way I could do it on my own. I'm a bit of a dreamer and a starer-out-the-window at times, and I knew that the idea needed to land somewhere, with someone else, where I could see it, before it could become real.

The first person who popped into my head was Jocelyn Richardson, someone I had known from afar for quite a few years. I think she is a deeply creative person, too, and honestly, my thought was: if Joce is involved, it'll happen. Of course she said yes as soon as I asked her.

Image: Chart Collective editors produce 1P/Halley, or: What Goes Around Comes Around zine

Marshall, Richardson and Trechter at work compiling their 1P/Halley, or: What Goes Around Comes Around zine (supplied)

That was in November 2013, and in the summer following, I had several conversations in kitchens at parties or over the dining room table with friends Colin Trechter (an artist and designer) and Bonnie Grant (a landscape architect), in which I told them about the idea, having this feeling that it would be up their alley, and asked them if they wanted to do it with me. And then the last to come was Phil Marshall, Jocelyn's husband, who works in community law and was studying conservation and land management. He got wind of the goings-on at our first meeting and wanted to get on board.

We've ended up with this very complementary and varied range of knowledge and skills.

As far as bringing artists in to work with us, it's been quite a simple process of getting in contact with people whose perspective we want to bring into the conversation we're having. We all have favourite artists, writers and musicians, and in the commissioning process I guess we're saying, ‘Hey, I wonder what that person would say in response to that theme’. Or, ‘I reckon that the work that person does would be so interesting framed in this context’. And then we just go crazy writing emails to those people, hoping they will reply!

It is certainly challenging working across media, and managing the editing and curation of such different works, but this is the beauty of having five of us. The main point, though, is that we feel the expression of a person's relationship to their place is often so sensory and so abstract, that if we want to really explore it we can't just stick to words and images. Besides, we're a (mostly) online publication, and one of the main advantages of that is that you can publish some sound or film or whatever you like. 

Image: Artwork-in-progress by Colin Trechter

Artwork-in-progress (Colin Trechter)

To that end – particularly with a landscape architect and a designer among your number, and because Chart’s mission is so focused on the idea of place – have you considered location-specific manifestations or installations of what you do?

Big time. We absolutely have ideas to do site-specific stuff, performance, installation, outings, even treasure hunt-style events, heaps of things!

The human/nature dichotomy is not useful anymore.

The only missing ingredient is cash. In a commercial sense we do not have a product that could make a business break even, let alone profit (or pay its staff – pretty much everything we have goes to contributors). I mean, we do our darndest to fundraise and be sustainable, with events and whatever we can think of, but that's the reality of small literary publications in Australia. So we rely on donations from readers who believe in the project, and also on grants. And let's not even talk about that right now, it's a bit depressing. But the moral of the story is that if some philanthropist with a love of literature, art and environment materialised tomorrow and said, ‘Here, have this money and go and make Chart everything you want it to be’, you would see site-specific artistic and literary projects popping up all over the country.

How does Chart negotiate an editorial line in terms of defining the ‘Australian environment’? Does that definition incorporate urban and built – even cultural – environments?  

One of the essential, guiding ideas in the development of this project was that with the world having been impacted so dramatically by humans and free-market capitalism, the human/nature dichotomy is not useful anymore. Humans are not living outside of nature (here's the city over here and there's the wilderness over there), with the option to 'save' it or just keep forging forward without it. We are part of it. So if we have an editorial line, it's that. We want to reimagine the narratives that we tell ourselves about our roles within and responsibilities to the systems around us. Whether you're living in a city or in suburbia or in the middle of the desert, you are just as responsible for your part in the ecosystems around you. And you are just as capable of real physical, emotional and creative engagement with the place you're in and everything else that's growing and living in that place. 

Chart’s just completed its first series, Longer Light, which was a series of twelve pieces where writers documented or responded to summer rituals. What have you learned or been surprised by through the process of doing that?

Well for us it has always been essential to work on this project with flexibility at the front of our minds, for a few reasons. And those reasons are mainly things like the fact that we all have commitments outside Chart that come and go and that we are never quite sure how much funding we'll have for the next project. There is not really a right way to do this publishing thing at the moment; you have to come up with your own way of doing things, particular to the publication you are trying to run and its intentions. So we are constantly talking about what does and doesn't work and reading about how others do it.

Image: Sophie Allan

Allan at work (supplied)

And it is important to note that we are by no means going it alone. We began this project under the auspices of [literary journal] The Lifted Brow, and have an ongoing association with them. I told [editor-in-chief] Sam Cooney about the idea at the very beginning, and he got it straight away. This project would simply not be where it is if it weren't for his generosity and his patience, and that of other editors I've met and spent time talking to about these things, like Amy Middleton who runs Archer, and Robert Skinner who runs The Canary Press.

But gosh, what we've learned between developing the Longer Light series and setting out with the Nocturnal series is a lot. I don't think that we've changed much about our editorial direction; the idea of the project is clear to us and strong and enduring. But with things like work timelines, how to use social media, how to talk to people about our project, how to get it to readers, we're learning a lot.

Phil was saying the other day that he knew some old Texan country singer who said that success is a mixture of brute force and ignorance, and I reckon there's something in that. You kind of just have to put your head down and run with an idea sometimes, if it's something you believe in. Not overthink it. There is a lot more to learn, and I just hope that the inevitable process of putting feet wrong isn't too painful for us or for those who work with us.

Image: Illustration by Colin Trechter

'Australian Fruit Salad' sketches (Colin Trechter)