Originally trained in dance and theatre design, Justine Shih Pearson has developed an expanded, interdisciplinary practice as a creative producer, facilitator, independent artist, writer, arts researcher and advocate.
Working across the not-for-profit arts and higher education sectors for 20 years, she has collaborated on projects for live performance, digital media, film/tv, online publishing, public spaces, hospitals and museums in cities in Australia, Europe, the UK, North America and SE Asia.
Justine holds a PhD (University of Sydney) and an MA (New York University) in performance studies, has lectured at the University of Sydney, UNSW and Macquarie University in the arts and design, and has held several leadership and executive positions in the arts sector in Australia.
A child of 1980s Silicon Valley, her life and work has been defined by developing technology over the last half century. Mixed-race and multinational, growing up between the unceded lands of the US and Australia as part of the Chinese diaspora, Justine is also a child of the Asia Pacific, and this geo-cultural context pervades her approach.
Trained in theatre design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Justine combines an ongoing creative practice with research and advocacy in the areas of art and artform development, intercultural and interdisciplinary performance practices, and placemaking.
From her early days hoofing it around NYC working on everything from big-budget musical theatre, to off-off Broadway, small-budget independent film, commercial tv, puppetry and object performance, Justine has developed a reputation for her dramaturgical insight, valued for her and multifaceted perspective as a designer, producer and scholar of performance, and often invited to give feedback on work in development.
“Design is fundamentally about problem solving—studying what an object or system needs to do and figuring out through innovation and exploration how to make it function better. It is also hugely humanist—it has to work in relation to real human experience, on individual, social and cultural levels, and speak to our senses, our aesthetics and values through material form. Designing is the skill to combine the crafting of fine detail with macro-analysis and an eye always attuned to the big picture.”
Moving between the US and Australia in the 2000s, she collaborated with a range of artists working with interdisciplinary and devised contemporary performance and dance practices, such as Jo Dudley and Cathy Adamek’s Maximum Legroom, Ingrid Voorendt, Zoë Barry and the Zephyr Quartet. Based in Sydney since 2007, more recently she has worked on projects with independent choreographers Martin del Amo, Julie-Anne Long, Narelle Benjamin, Raghav Handa and Maharshi Raval, Ade Suharto and Peni Candra Rini, Linda Luke, and Victoria Hunt (with whom she won a 2018 Green Room Award for Best Visual Design). She lends particular expertise as a researcher and dramaturg of intercultural performance having completed doctoral research in this area and having worked with a number of artists operating between traditional and contemporary practices. In all her work Justine seeks to centre the complexities of diasporic, postcolonial, indigenous and migrant experience.
Taking it to the streets (& other places)
Justine writes regularly on performance and everyday life, the embodiment of national and cultural belonging, spatial practices and urbanism, public space and social reliance.
“The key elements of my practice are space and movement; my methods utilise these knowledges from dance and performance but turn them to understanding and engaging with social life more broadly, be it how fabric interfaces with a contemporary dancer or how a city organises its people. And I often work closely with contemporary artists innovating traditional cultural practices, because underpinning all my work is a drive to capture today’s persistent tension between globalising forces and attachments to local practice/place.”
Her writing has been published in Realtime, The Conversation, About Performance, Australasian Drama Studies, Critical Dialogues, Extensions, and Brolga. She co-edited special issues of About Performance on movement (2012), risk (2014), and performance studies (2017), and a special issue of Performance Paradigm on southern feminisms (2020). As an editor, she has worked with more than 50 writers on subjects as diverse as living with crocodiles, disability as spectacle at the Paralympics, odissi connections to architecture, Holocaust memorialisation and placemaking in Vienna, mana wahine in Disney’s Moana, and the creative potential of migratory shorebirds. Justine’s monograph Choreographing the Airport: Field Notes From the Transit Spaces of Global Mobility (Palgrave 2018), charts how choreographic thinking can be used to study transnational systems of mobility like the airport.
In the mid-2000s, she began making site-based audiowalks as a way to expand the sensory and somatic strategies of dance towards explorations of place and the everyday movements of the streets. This work seeks to redress the disembodying potential of technology today by calling attention to intimate, bodily, affectful experience. In 2006 she made A place called Lost for a warren of corridors at 721 Broadway, and most recently was commissioned to make Changing Pathways, an audiowalk of the Westmead Hospital precinct in Western Sydney. She is currently beginning work on an audiowalk of Haymarket, a historic Chinatown in Sydney.
Over the last 10 years, Justine has increasingly worked in leadership positions within the arts sector, curating programs for arts organisations, public talks, development opportunities for artists, residency programs, and developing organisational strategy and national and international partnerships.
She undertook a programming fellowship at Dance Theater Workshop (2007) and was then brought on by Performance Space as producer of screendance festival ReelDance (2007-2009), where she produced a range of screening, exhibition and international development activities, including the festival’s 11-city tour of Australia and New Zealand in 2008, and curated programs of short works from Australian and international new media artists. Justine was acting director of choreographic research centre Critical Path (2012-2013; 2015), a key organisation supporting artform development for the independent dance community in Australia. While at Critical Path she was a spokesperson and advocate for the independent sector, instituting a mentorship program for Indigenous emerging choreographers, and engaging with over 200 artists a year from around Australia and the world to develop international exchanges, masterclasses, workshops and creative development projects. In 2018, she was invited to convene (with Fiona Winning) a sector summit for international delegates to the Liveworks Festival of Asia Pacific Experimental Performance.
Currently Justine programs a creative research residency program for the Rex Cramphorn Studio at the University of Sydney (since 2018), and is chair of artist-run organisation Readymade Works (since 2017). She is a peer on the register of the Australia Council for the Arts and has been a peer assessor for the Australia Council, Create NSW, Dancehouse.
In addition to a BFA in theatre design (New York University), she holds a BA Hons in dance (University of Adelaide), and a MA (New York University) and PhD (University of Sydney) in performance studies. While at NYU, she received the Performance Studies Award in recognition of her work as an artist-scholar. Justine is currently an Honorary Associate in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, School of Literature, Art and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Sydney.