by Urszula Dawkins

Emails and phone calls just don’t cut it when you’re lonely, travelling, and craving intimacy, says Malcolm Whittaker. Walking the streets of Berlin late at night, while away on a travel grant, Whittaker began to think about the power of the written word to connect people. And this is where a lover’s discourse – not a performance so much as the expression of an idea – began its journey as a vehicle for the intimate and vulnerable exchange of words. Asking people to join a kind of blind-date/penpal project, Whittaker gathered addresses from interested participants and gave each one the address of a stranger. The stipulation was to write a love letter. A couple of years down the track there are at least 20 of these ‘couples’ still exchanging letters.

It’s not the only project for which Whittaker has co-opted the actions of ordinary people. A recent gallery-based work asked people to sit down, pick up a mobile phone from the desk in front of them and call a number at random from the contacts stored in the phone. Whittaker says he’s interested in everyday experience, and in “coming to terms with the small part you play in the world”.

“The form and the content shouldn’t be kept separate,” he says, “so if the work is about people then it should engage with people in the way it’s presented. …[The work I make] doesn’t have to be virtuous and grand or an amazing spectacle, it can just be very simple. In this way there’s less critical distance between the viewer and the audience and the work itself.”

Whittaker is simply the instigator for a lover’s discourse, he says (though he has been a correspondent as well), and participants can respond in whatever way they want.

“My only instruction is that this person is expecting a love letter from you. The way I’ve done it with all my own partners is just [to write as though] we’re in love or we’re missing one another. But I think a lot of other people don’t create personas or anything, but use it like a penpal with an amorous outpouring…or they’re exercises in flattery – and even though it’s coming from someone you don’t know, it still holds this great weight, I find. The post has invested in it this strange weight where it doesn’t matter that it’s a fiction.”

The vulnerability of the process fascinates Whittaker: he says a lover’s discourse offers a chance to ‘reinvest’ vulnerability in a culture that he feels has largely lost it. The world can become too big, sometimes, he says: the letter returns us to the human scale.

Just like ‘real love’, a lover’s discourse is unpredictable, and can bring disappointment and loss, says Whittaker.

“There are people who write to a partner and never get a letter back, which leaves some quite heartbroken, and they get back in touch with me – but to me, that’s making it quite real in a lot of ways, this unrequited love. Even though it’s fictional, it’s as though suddenly it’s become a real love letter, in the way that I imagine so many get written and never get a return.”

When he brings a lover’s discourse to Arts House, Meat Market this week, the audience will be able to watch some of the project’s ‘lovers’ who’ve agreed to interact online in real time, sharing their experience live. It is a risky, unpredictable and ultimately endearing process, he says. At a previous showing of the work, one ‘lover’ began to believe he was communicating with his real-life partner, based on their live exchanges. When he asked an “ultimate question” and it gave away that it wasn’t his partner, Whittaker says the feeling in the room was palpable – all of the audience were heartbroken.

“It’s about the language of love in the modern age, and intimacy between strangers. …[the] idea of scale in a big world, and about keeping it within your grasp.”

Malcolm Whittaker

Arts House, Meat Market
Friday 12 August

Book online or phone (03) 9322 3713


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Arts House presents contemporary arts in programs encompassing performance, exhibitions, live art, residencies and other activities that nurture, support and stimulate cultural engagement. For more information, please visit
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