Reading the poetic signs of our reality as a desire to live “in common”
“I talked a lot about writing. I do not know what it is.”, Marguerite Duras, 1987
I am sitting down at the kitchen table, facing the white page of a word document on my laptop and looking through the window at small round patches of moss on a corrugated rooftop. The white page on my computer seems to be a good place to start exploring the positions of simultaneously seeing and giving something to see, fusing temporal moments. The little bits of moss remind me of little islands, little communities. I have been interested in issues relating to different forms of past and contemporary political resistance that result in the creation of autonomous communities that raise a simple question: how to live together?
What do I want to show? Where do I place the form and subject of my work in relation to specific moments from the past and the History of Art? As a starting point, a few years ago, I looked for answers in the Greek tragedy Antigone and ended up reading Bertolt Brecht’s version. I had a strong interest in this text and its representation of Antigone, as it echoed my own experimentation between forms of enunciation and representation of reality. This led me to make my film Antigone Millennium (2012), which combines fictional and documentary approaches. It was shot in New York at the end of 2011 in a context of social upheaval – as the Occupy Wall Street movement challenged financial capitalism – which seemed to evoke the ancient story of Antigone’s revolt. Comparable to the principle of an autonomous space, the Occupy movement was formed around a will to occupy and resist. In the same way Antigone’s call for a political will that does not depend on pure social power remains relevant and current. Antigone brings out the desire for a new and communal space; likewise the 1871 Paris Commune has revived the meaning of the medieval communes. This desire for a self-governing and shared space seems to reappear throughout History.
Thus I wondered whether the word “commune” retains its meaning still today. I followed a few threads in making my latest film Silent Routes (2016). In France, the establishment of the first medieval communes marked the end of feudalism. At the end of the eleventh century, the economy was growing and this encouraged peasants and people to directly exercise the functions of a government. Meanwhile, the beguines movement and their autonomous communities were born. Beguines were lay nuns, who established themselves in community. Trying not to replicate the pattern of dogmatic Christianity, these women wished not to be cloistered. They expressed a spiritual desire for emancipation and for individual freedom. Their mysticism was a tool that allowed them to reach a certain level of social control over their own bodies and to create a space for thought. The independent character of the beguine communities facing the clerical and patriarchal society of the time can perhaps be seen as a precursor of feminist movements, becast socially and economically (from theiuse for the first time women could exir dowry or paid work). Is the experience of the beguine movement a sign of resistance to the narration of History and a willingness to take part in its writing? Without trying to look for an answer, Silent Routes raise the question of how to live together, through a dialogue between two eras; the Middle Ages where the market system begins, and the 21st century where this system prevails. Silent Routes, which borrows from the film essay form and the fragmented narrative, consists of a series of four fictional portraits inspired by medieval legends and historical figures. Through a contemporary mise-en-scene, these characters evoke in their own way their desire for human community, their willingness for a biopolitical fabric built in opposition to existing power relations. Silent Routes invokes the soul of places and their inhabitants so that Hi(stories) and personal realities meet to build narrative situations taking place in the Real.
The notion of “commune” resonates both as a geographical and conceptual space, physical and intangible, real and fictional. It asks the questions, how can we find ways to survive beyond systems that attempt to control and regulate life? In Britain the ‘commons’, is one of the only models of alternative ownership, and perhaps another way of looking at our current situation. It refers to a space shared by a community. And in this sense, the commons is both a geographical location, scattered across the map and the consolidation of resistance against the privatization of resources and livelihoods. It is a space of political imagination. Does the present time have a similarity with the beguine movement’s momentum eight centuries ago? Does the way to create a human communal space depend on what we have ‘in common’? ‘Commune’ and ‘in common’ raises questions on finding ways to build and maintain social relationships. Can a political act, like the beguines’ action for example, exceed its own words and move beyond its origins to become an autonomous poetic expression? According to Gilles Deleuze, the act of the creation of an artwork is an act of resistance. In his 1989 conference at FEMIS he stated, “To have an idea in cinema. … An artwork has nothing to do with communication. An artwork does not contain any information. However, there is a fundamental affinity between an artwork and the act of resistance. It has something to do with the information and communication as an act of resistance”. He believed that the language through which a political, artistic act is expressed will enable the artwork to resist. Perhaps it might even fit into the History of a territory.
I see parallels and connections between the desire to stand with others, the act of resistance that connects art to politics and its potential to project itself beyond the present. Autonomous spaces arise as poetic signs of resistance rooted in reality. These signs reappear at various times in History reflecting a desire to compose other worlds here-and-now that resist time (a Greek myth, a pagan rite, a medieval pact, a British tradition).
Nobody digs on property that is not their own but they dug anyway. The shovel dove in, a foot on top to make it go deeper and a push and a pull outward and up and it was free. Then to place the material away from the hole – behind will do. Now to have a purpose for digging, that is why others do it. They dig to create holes to fill, holes to fill with concrete, water, seeds, people, sand, soil – things to bury. Some dig to find things, fossils, bones, minerals, precious rocks, liquids. Some dig at the seaside. They dig to Australia, China, very few dig for nothing.
So they dug for nothing, the shovel dove in, a foot on top, and a push and a pull outward and up and it was free. The material piling up behind them. The level of the ground was shifting, their toes now lower than their heels. As the light changed, the hole became deeper, the piles became mounds and as one tired and fell the next would begin, in the same place, at the same speed, with the same technique. The shovel dove in, a foot on top, and a push and a pull outward and up and it was free. The material surrounded them. Specks were under their nails, in their hair and their eyes. It clung to them, to the moving and to the fallen, everything connected.
SG: Rocks, yes, but seemingly light and delicate rocks.
A: For me they are information in tactile form. Information that morphs from solid object to solid object.
SG: But the only way that either of us can see this information is because of light. Light is the ultimate informant.
A:Light to see, sure, but light is so fleeting; the ground, earth and rocks are so solid in comparison.
SG: But still – transitory. As transitory as language. I look up, all night.
A: I look down, all day.
SG: I have the universe at my disposal.
A: You look at a universe made of light and images whilst forgetting about touch. Knowledge acquired by touch renews and changes the true meaning of an object. What you are seeing is a potential illusion made up of light and sight.
SG: When you as an archaeologist are searching through soil, you have a question in mind, objects shift to be the answers to those questions. Negative space is disregarded and answers to unknown questions are dismissed as useless matter. Illusion is a reality and therefore a truth.
“Todays dreamers are perhaps the great precursors of the ultimate science of the future.” – Bernardo Soares
SG = Stargazer
A = Archaeologist
A conversation between a stargazer and an archeologist, Alex McNamee
A collection of items sit on my studio shelf. Reliefs for failed wood cut prints, a found post card of the Giants Causeway. An edited image of the inside of an envelope that looks now like a dancing figure and a bunch of novelty wax crayons shaped like crystals. These are objects I have mostly accumulated; several are items that have been given to me.
Fit in your hand scale models are scattered along the shelf and have been the beginnings of new works. These are made from paper and eventually become digitally re-designed and fabricated through my instruction. One model in particular links closely to a work created for an outdoor play sculpture proposal for THINK.PLAY.DO at The Tetley in Leeds. The idea took influence from Bruno Taut’s children’s game Dandanah – The Fairy Palace, produced in 1919-20. The game consists of coloured blocks that make up a structure of a palace. The purpose is for the player to reconfigure the blocks to create different formations. There was a similar principle to the outcome of the grey board maquette that I made. As the stickiness of the tape wore away that held the pieces together, they eventually separated. I created a new form of the 18 sided shape that collapsed and similarly to the game, I reconstructed it.
The play sculpture proposal investigates the inhabitations of a child’s inner nature to explore.
Going slightly off topic, I recently saw a gallery visitor reaching out to touch an unframed wall work that was intrinsically folded and made from paper. She was unaware that she wasn’t supposed to touch the artwork. The reaction to touch something is instinctive, a combination of a physical and emotional response. Whether it’s an urge to touch something for pleasure or something to make you cringe.
In a recent exhibition at The Bluecoat, Left Hand to Back of Head, Object Held Against Right Thigh, curated by Adam Smythe, there is a narrative within the show that investigates how art works act on our bodies. I found there was often a flipside response, physically and emotionally, from the viewer and perhaps some works were difficult to experience.
Both Untitled works I included concentrate on the physical experience towards sculpture. I employ techniques and other gestures that suggest to the viewer that the work might be functional. The cut out handles on the works surface encourage the audience to question how the work has been lifted into the space. The reality of these designs is quite the opposite. There is no framework to reinforce the structure and when lifted they are probably just as fragile as the paper sculptures. The works feed into my interest in ergonomics, furniture design and approaches towards display. Unlike Untitled (collapsed maquette), where the sculpture physically accommodates the viewer, these new works anticipate a body.
Please can we discuss the way your work occupies different spaces, from the open to the studio, via sculpture parks, football stadiums and bars?
I think a good place to start briefly is in the studio, and how my understanding of what a studio is changed when I stopped trying to make sculpture. My relationship to object making was always slightly conflicted. I couldn’t handle making something for a purely aesthetic purpose or merit. With sculpture that seemed to always be the case for me, I couldn’t ignore that part of the conversation I just kept returning to it. I found myself in a situation where I was trying to make objects that undermined themselves as artworks, which is such a tricky position, kind of an oxymoron, especially when trying to develop a practice around it. It felt conflicted.
So I started performing with public sculptures, fundamentally I think just to try and figure what my relationship to sculpture and art was. The tangible link of making a physical thing had gone, so there was this empty space that needed filling. I think in hindsight it had something to do with the politics of object making, how I addressed and thought about sculpture, how I valued it and how an audience thinks about it. So I confronted it head on in the form of Tony Cragg’s ‘Versus’ sculpture.
From that moment the studio shifted from a private physical place of labour to a completely open public stage. In this first instance Exhibition Way in South Kensington where Cragg had a series of his sculptures on show in 2012.
Encountering art in public is a very different exchange than when it’s in a gallery. It’s not a voluntary meeting for a start or it has the potential not to be. It’s subject to a democratic form of taste and value, which the gallery normally keeps at arm’s length. This raises questions surrounding the responsibility of Art, what is its purpose? Does it need one? Do or should our expectations of art change when everything’s out in the open? It’s quite a vulnerable position for a sculpture in theory, out there all alone exposed without Art’s comfy rhetoric there to protect it. Admittedly South Kensington might not be the best example of the harsh realities of ‘everyday life’. It’s hardly kitchen sink drama stuff, but symbolically it’s a step in that direction, even if that step is tiny. Having adopted the vernacular of a football hooligan the character of the performer imposes a completely different value system onto the art object. This slight exposure is a potential threat to art, just by the fact it is situated in a location with blurred or less concrete boundaries than the gallery or the museum. I know South Ken is as close to being inside the museum without actually being inside it, but the odd shady character can and might just find themselves there. I wanted to use these different personifications of high and low culture to test the statues worth, to see if it could hold its own, to antagonise it and bluntly undermine it.
Which I think brings us to a really key point which is hovering somewhere around the idea of irresponsibility of a given participant in any context. Context so often dictates a prescribed mode of behaviour which is inevitably linked to a much wider cultural body. I always think we learn more about any one thing by exposing it to something completely alien. Or it’s at least the bluntest, most crude and direct way of doing so, which personality wise fits quite well with me. These types of exchanges, which are essentially relational, between conflicting ideas act like simple ways of telling a story, seeing something succeed where it was always doomed to fail, or failing where glory was all but guaranteed. You can use the product of one context to expose the structure and workings of another, and vice versa. The simple idea of misbehaviour or any action that is deemed ‘not appropriate’ is definitely beneficial to giving us a better understanding of what we’re looking at.
If you imagine I take a walk out of the museum past Tony’s “Big Shiny Spinny Sculpture”, which is just to left on the grassy bit of urban development. I plot a course past my studio, then onto a bar, then to a football stadium getting further and further away until eventually I’m out in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. The further away I get from the museum, the more the ground I stand on begins to shift. The definers of value and taste in the initial context of museum, which potentially feels something like an authoritative voice, begins to move from being an external environment to becoming embodied by me. Even if I don’t actually believe it, the further away I get from them the more I am defined by them. One moment I’m sticking my fingers up at a Tony Cragg sculpture, the next I am the bloody Tony Cragg sculpture trying to get all colloquial at the football. By the time we’re in the wilderness we’re left doing our best Casper David Friedrich impression, and terms like taste and value have absolutely no meaning anymore, they have nothing to hold onto. My point is that depending where you choose to momentarily exist as an artist you can find yourself operating from opposing ends of the same spectrum, or at least I do. One minute you’re supposedly looking up, the next you’re supposedly looking down. With this shifting platform I think there is a shift in responsibility, or at least there has to be an awareness of that shift. It’s not an artist’s job to be polite and democratic necessarily, that would be pretty boring.
So I guess what’s interesting to think about when making work from this sliding position is, how can one intentionally misrepresent the museum the further afield they get?
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I initially wanted to explore the way your practice inhabits a language of symbols, however after a period of time spent looking and reading I felt there was a sense, or tone, of loss running throughout much of the work. Please could we explore this a little?
I think ideas around loss inherently orbit that of objecthood and, thus contemporary sculptural language. Specifically additive and reductive sculptural processes, for example the loss of function in display and the loss of the original and mould in the casting process. I am fascinated by Michel Serres text Statues, at the centre of this absurd book is the idea that the corpse, the dead body is the first ‘object’ for man – transformed from an animate to inanimate ‘obstacle’ – objects, prehistorically signify loss. His quote frames these concerns, “The dead body lies there, cutting into space. Larger lying down than standing, more terrifying dead than alive. Also the first solid: stiff, hard, rigorous, coherent, consistent, absolutely stable, the first stone statue.”
Like most people, personally, I have dealt with loss and absence – a very exceptional experience – this impacts on my work, as it impacts on my life – lets call it a ‘motivation’ – I like that word. I think the idea of subject matter (in the act of making an artwork) can be restrictive but motivation is a much more generous term. Acts of transgression in my life are now incumbent, silent and orbital – but I am motivated. Working with objects allows me to tether relationships to formal losses, like those stated above, along with thinking about the loss of place and loss of time – multifarious and synchronous ideas.
The studio is a place where, through, selecting, generating and staging objects I can make work, addressing a broad range of interests (currently these include the work of Charles and Ray Eames from the mid to late 1950’s, British kids’ fantasy novels from the 1970’s, Ebay sales’ photography, faux pattern, form, surface, types of sticky tape, extreme UK metal and indeed loss). Last year I was thinking a lot about the contemporary word Losslessness – not least because it looks great written down, as it is so heavily compounded. Losslessness is a computational term relating to the stability of encoded data – acknowledging the pervasive and unseen loss in data reproduction. If we extrapolate this to think about tangible stuff in the world the word losslessness suggests presence, despite the capacity for loss.
Exploring the language of symbols is very prevalent in my work – I have worked with the logo for the supermarket Lidl, badges and pins, hippy iconography, ‘smiley-faces’, images and words hastily drawn into wet concrete – there has always been an act of slippage in the appropriation of gestures and signs within my work. And, I am interested in how the world falls apart for a moment when something is not what it suggests.
I can summarise this by quoting the last page of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise, where he writes about the utter confusion of shoppers encountering supermarket shelves that have been rearranged – creating pandemonium in the isles.
“The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the isles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soup now, the condiments are scattered. […] There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print of packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. […] In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or what they think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.”
This interest in signification has shifted in my work to foregrounding and thinking specifically about objects. These can incorporate something physically transmutable and somewhat evasive, like a logo, but making stuff – scratching, pulling, extruding, casting, solidifying, coating things has developed into a way of mediating these ideas. Stopping something, halting its semiotic advance or transformations is a pleasure and something like magic. I use casting as a type of reverse engineering of an objects’ form – often making the mould from scratch, without an original, often working quickly, thinking about what is the physical opposite or inverse of this thing in my hands.
The idea of authenticity is important, much like the shoppers in Delillio’s text checking the authenticity of the goods that had been muddled. It is evident that through film, music and art we are looking for signs of authentication in a work, in form, or experience – often creating fakes or replicas – acts of gestural cultural mimicry. Umberto Eco discusses a ‘frantic desire for Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories, the Absolute Fake is the offspring of the unhappy awareness of present without depth.’ In relation to this I am interested in using my work to instigate a wider examination of various types of contemporary cultural loss – specifically, the loss of alternative modalities of cultural production. More simply, a loss, or mourning for something-like modernism’s cultural and formal ideal.
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in the 80’s and 90’s surrounded by people who were genuinely living alternative life styles, with different monetary and cultural economies, hippies, addicts, land-workers. I recognized this in London too when I moved there around 2000. I don’t doubt that rural parts of the West Midlands aren’t still full of people living alternate life styles. However, I think that in the current late-capitalist conditions the opportunity to live beyond or aside is out of reach for a lot of people – we surveil and self-surveil and the monetisation of cultures is pervasive.
It is very easy to feel displaced. If parts of the internet, propagated specifically by social media, speak about transformation – body alteration, get rich quick, get famous, get infamous, one can begin to believe that anything is possible. Only its not, its really not – at the time of his death, look at the middle-class mourning for what David Bowie represented. I have a palpable feeling of loss for alternate modes of people living their lives. These themes were really important to the writer David Foster Wallace. When I began to think about addressing your question about my work, I thought a lot about Foster Wallace’s analysis of his time after writing his massive and critically acclaimed book Infinite Jest, summarised in the quote below:
“Look, a lot of the impetus for writing ‘Infinite Jest’ was just the fact that I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad. I think it has something to do with being raised in an era when really the ultimate value seems to be – I mean a successful life is – let’s see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie. But the reason I don’t like talking about it discursively is it sounds very banal and cliché, you know, when you say it out loud that way. Believe it or not this was – this came as something of an epiphany to us at around age 30, sitting around, talking about why on earth we were so miserable when we’d been so lucky.”
Foster Wallace made these remarks about 20 years ago and I really empathise with them – I am a British artist, living and working in Britain today and I understand and recognise this sentiment very clearly – a real sense of loss which is complex and dense and sad.
I have recently been thinking a lot about the ways I select, manipulate and make forms in the studio in relation to how you may view chains or waves of internet ‘research’. The way searches bounce around from dates, responses, tone, through hidden and exposed references. So, I am currently working on a project entitled After Living, centering on a bringing-together of items representing a dwelling – a collection, amalgamation, gestalt. Acting as the genesis for this is the film House: After Five Years of Living by Charles and Ray Eames. Their film presents details of a house, as the title suggests, 5 years after it was built in 1949 – and details what is magnificently possible in making a home. Michael Haneke’s film Seventh Continent is a kind of inverse of the Eames reference. Although it is one of the most desperately sad filmic narratives, the way everyday objects are transformed throughout the film is quite incredible – there is an image of a beach, which is an amazing counterpoint/foil – something I’d like to use in a video at some point. Through this project, as with much of my work, I am really trying to sustain a set of objects accumulative potential.
Jamie George is an artist living and working in London.
Within your practice, I feel I am being let in on a process where you can be seen thinking or working your way through a topic in a multitude of different ways, including observation, dialogue, text and object making. Please can you talk a little about this idea of ‘working or thinking through’ as an artistic process?
I’ll start by talking a little about story telling in relation to my work and then maybe that will smooth some things out. There’s a lot of stuff kicking about, so I guess this opens it up a little. Everyone likes a good story anyway.
I like to think that the artwork and its research sit together. Between them they take up the stance of a storyteller, right there on the stage, speaking with all the imperfections of an orator. A pause, image falls away to blank screen and somebody leaves the room. Behind the scenes, sentences are relayed luxuriously and scribbled out. Through research I work out what it is I can say, unraveling and re-raveling knots. The less abstract it is, the more vulnerable it becomes. I’m aware that I’m in the privileged position of being allowed to speak to you with my own voice, although sometimes I speak it with an accent.
I take the stories of others and just like my ancestors did, I re-tell them. Putting other’s language into another’s body and wondering which is history and which myth? This is a violent act and I understand that. I think about the ability of our law to dismiss oral histories in favour of those that read and write. That begins to tell a tale.
As does ethnographic film, that genre that tries and fails to do what documentary doesn’t – to comment in neutrality. Napoleon Chagnon’s 1975 film ‘The Ax Fight’ is a particular exemplar of this. Here the image, the written word and the spoken voice mingle on the screen. He plays the same sequence three times over and at each instance arrives at a new interpretation: -
‘First impressions can be mistaken. When the fight first started, one informant told us that it was about incest. However, subsequent work with other informants revealed that the fight stemmed from quite a different cause’
Whilst Chagnon insists on trying to translate the story of the Amazonian Yanomami into Western experience, for me this short film illustrates the absurdity in that. It is still confined to that camera angle, those subtitles, this voice and in amongst it all, white man and his technology continue to capture and dislocate.
And when I talk of stories I don’t just refer to those embroiled in words, written and spoken. Images and objects are wrapped up in their own tales; gestures and hesitations, architectural features and communal spaces all carry narratives that shuffle and shift in front of their audience.
Often though, it is the more physical element of a work that is the first to fall into place, I find that side of things quite a relief. These materials come together through observation; show home flats, military festivals and Mexican markets all speak their own languages of display. I enjoy manipulating these or at least borrowing from them and really everything informs the other.
So at the end, I fear what we’re left with is just another unsure assemblage. The story peters out; it speaks in tongues and doesn’t really understand itself. At best it leaves you guessing. It knots up, becomes background noise, disappears into storage. Although it never claims to be neutral.
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Looking at your writing, I want to draw a connection between the structure of the mouth and that of a vessel. It’s as if to say that both vessels and the body (or specifically the mouth/hyoid) possess an embodied knowledge, or their own ‘terroir’. They clearly function quite differently however, the history of the mouth is superseded by language itself which prevents us from studying its ‘embodied knowledge’. Or put another way, imagine if wine could talk?
I think that discovering the term ‘terroir’ was a really important moment for my research. A term used to describe a wine as having a particular ‘time’, ‘altitude’ or ‘environment’, the material could be said to be ‘inhabited’ by these abstract qualities. Through our encounter with that material, we can access these things without having encountered them in ‘real’ time. I’m interested in ideas of somehow ‘knowing’ without physically experiencing.
This idea helped me to think about how I could approach my sculptural practice when it came to material choices or processes. I found the idea of a blankness or muteness within the particular materials I was using problematic, and wanted to develop my sculptural language by seeing how they could be inhabited by complex narratives, held within their body or fabric. I also wanted to look at where this occurs within existing objects or matter and how these encounters can be facilitated.
When I thought of work in this way, I began to think through the idea of an existing ‘embodied knowledge’. In the same way that that wine could take on an abstract quality, so perhaps could a time be unconsciously present or active in matter or object. Whilst I was on residency in Düsseldorf, I learned that our hyoid, the bone in our throat that facilitates speech, is identical to that of a Neanderthals and therefore through the use of our hyoid, we are carrying out processes or actions identical to a Neanderthal, and they us. In these cases, it’s as if time becomes elastic or connected by these presences and experiences. We know what they knew, and vice versa. The actions are subconscious but the implications are abstract and uncanny. ‘Language’, if you describe it in lingual terms, is most interesting when one considers that through its use, an uncannyness is facilitated by the muscle or word formation.
This idea was explored in a few text pieces which describe uncanny encounters with matter that still appears ‘fresh’ even after huge amounts of time has passed, for example the discovery of 3000 year old butter in a peat bog, still with the finger prints of its maker in its yellow surface, or the discovery of 5000 year old honey. I think it’s the idea that these materials are still ‘fresh’ or ‘live’, presenting a collapse or closeness of time. I’m really interested in this closeness to ‘time’ that is facilitated through the resonance within objects, not in a museological or artefactual sense, but through a ‘felt-ness’, they still ‘address’ us.
It’s a language of ‘felt-ness’ that I’m interested in throughout my practice more broadly. It goes beyond talking in a traditional sense, looking towards the facilitation of something outside of linear language, something abstract. I love to think that somehow times, experiences or narratives are not only collapsed and expanded in materials and your encounter of them, but that you also become written into the objects narrative. They are in the process of passing, not past. To return to the mouth, or in particular our hyoid, its interesting to think about that live connectedness, or future connectedness, times almost touching.
All these examples are with materials that are very ‘primary’ like bone, butter, honey. They are very ‘known’ or perceived to be ‘known’. It’s interesting to try and reposition these materials and interrogate them, not as artefacts but more as motifs which help me develop my own sculptural/text language and theory, applying these motifs and ideas to contemporary concerns.
B. Belfast (1986), Lauren Gault lives and works in Glasgow. She is currently undertaking a two month residency and solo exhibition with Hotel Maria Kapel, Hoorn, The Netherlands.
There is a translation between language, image and objects within your work. What does this translation mean to you and what role does the body play in mediating between these different states?
It’s not often that I think about the distinctions between these forms, where one begins and one ends. Language, images, and objects seem to exist in very fluid categories for me. Objects formed through images, images formed through language, and language formed through physicality. It’s in these sensory shifts that new meanings emerge, connections are made in the spaces between. The body ultimately plays role as the mediator, through a process of receiving and transmitting signals, where a tender politics can be developed and nurtured through an intimate, corporeal engagement. I was just at the Robert Gober show here in New York and was very moved by his newspaper prints overlaid with drawings of fragmented connections between two people—a couple, a father and son—truncated only to show points of touch, where foot caresses leg, where arm traces outline. The images spoke of deep human connection and unthinkable tragedy. The experience highlighted the importance of returning to the body, how to engage haptic memory as a bridge to understanding. Modes of attentive listening come to mind, as well as how the personal can always related to the political. Clarice Lispector, in her book Near to the Wild Heart, writes: “The quality of these incidents was such, that you couldn’t remember them by speaking. Or even by thinking in words. The only way was to stop for a moment and feel it again.”
I think this is where my interest in the breath comes in, it extends from the body yet remains interior, it’s both public and private and completely universal to human experience. It carries our voice in the absence of language, it speaks volumes. This might sound obvious but it’s something that seems to be overlooked. Attention to breath is something that requires close listening, proximity, a certain intimacy and a slowing down. Instead of trying to fill the gaps, I try to create them, allowing spaces for others to inhabit and emergent connections to form.
At first glance within your work I am often presented with a display of feeling, sometimes triggered by the title, which points me first and foremost in this direction, sidestepping other formal concerns. As a viewer I am naturally guarded and assume there is more at play, that the feelings are a device rather than an end in their own right.
I’m not sure I could divide form or technique from emotion and am ambivalent about the possibilities of doing so. Indeed the fractured and overlapping nature of these qualities is something I find problematic and fascinating. That to some degree these qualities (of emotional resonance and technical construction) are proposed as separable is something that I would want to examine through the work. For instance I find these TV Karaoke shows very moving but I of course know, as we all do, that they are totally heartless and strategic money making exercises. My knowledge of their aims and their construction doesn’t stop the emotional manipulation from working. Perhaps their rather obvious emotional manipulation is one reason why that goosebump inducing hit is so remarkably short lived, it is a sort of emotional MSG, you know what you’ll get and it gives it to you as quickly and easily as possible. What I think is interesting in this now is that this manipulation is so totally obvious and embedded in the program’s production and reception that it can’t even be parodied (except perhaps by the very lamest of Radio 4 comedy shows). I think this has had the odd effect of reimbuing these things with power, it is like the idea that the greatest trick advertisers have pulled is convincing everyone that advertising doesn’t work and so we are immune to it, which, evidently isn’t true.
The artworks that matter most to me resonanate somehow, they have some combination of the qualities of identification and escape. I also always want to take things apart, to examine their structure in order to try and figure out why and how they are functioning. The effects of emotion are, for me, the most interesting tool to do that with. These effects are both the most resistant and rewarding thing to really examine because they are culturally the most persistent and divisive; anger and sadness are the two biggest clickbate generators I once read and I can, from experience, believe it.
However I then see you as a protagonist appearing, either through interviews, texts and lectures, or through elements of the work itself. These varying forms act as a reveal whereby you shift position in relation to the audience, in a way that parallels what occurs within much of the advertising that you have dissected. It’s as if you say, ‘we both know that this might not be real, but let’s believe it together’. I’m interested in whether this is in any way intentional, or even avoidable? Furthermore, I’m interested in the idea of how in a search for unmediated feeling within a work, where do you position yourself and what might this mean?
I think the use of the term ‘protagonist’ here is important and the notion of performance, in its many facets, is a fascinating one. “All the world is a stage” was a well worn concept by the time it reached Shakespeare but in contemporary culture this has become instrumentalised for many reasons, not least the ends of various neo-liberal agendas. The proposition that if you rehearse well enough, and play your desired part convincingly enough, ‘you too will win in the game of life’ is a meritocratic fantasy that various political and commercial entities want us to imagine we are living in; it serves their agenda, creating and perpetuating a situation that relentlessly screws people over, or better yet, encourages a situation where people screw themselves over, and then blame themselves for failing. Today’s mindful performance of ‘the better you’ can be seen in things as simple as ‘dress for the job you want’ and the aspirational voter (who votes for a party that will serve their interests when they become rich and successful). I also think here of the innumerable TED type talks where some young entrepreneurial high school drop-out talks about how he made his first billion, whilst living with his single mom, armed only with a great idea, determination and a lot of hard work, and how similar this is to a Phillip Morris employee wheeling out the one nonagenarian chainsmoking cyclist to present him as the basis for, rather than the exception to, a rule.
So on the one hand I think there is a problematic side to ideas around the performative or performativity. On the other, the “do they mean it?’ or ‘is that real?’ have been incredibly important and rewarding questions for me. The unfathomable nature of someone else’s authenticity in relation to ones own, rather maleable, self has been something that has held my interest since seeing Sean Landers text works and watching Andy Kaufman routines in the 1990′s.
In terms of unmediated feeling, I think that one can get a sort of pure hit of emotion or connection but I don’t think this feeling is sustainable, at the point of recognition it evaporates. It is like when a song makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, after that first time forevermore when you hear that song your experience is felt relative to that initial singular moment. Subsequent listening becomes a mix of memory, expectation, desire, hope, prescription and self-delusion. The first ‘hearing’ haunts the song from then on. So this unmediated moment, the first hit, is only one part of what I think Adorno would call “a genuine aesthetic experience”. For me, somehow it feels like the initial moment along with the recognition of that moment and then the subsequent inhabbiting of this kind of rolling mass of cognition, deconstruction, suspicion, emotion, connection and distanciation as a whole ark of experience is what great art provides.
Where I position myself in all this is as someone to whom art matters and who chooses to make art. The voice and narrative and conversation are all important to me, the things I love often use these devices and I suppose I see value and problems in them and because they matter to me. I feel invested in trying to work out how they work and what they, as forms, might be able to help materialise. Literature, comedy, film, music, advertising, fashion, these all have had at least as big an effect on me as Fine Art and so I want to include them in the things I make and I want to use them to reflect on each other, on me, on the viewer. Of course being so interested in things that already exist, that other people made and how these things effect culture or society means that my position as an author within all this is something that I am constantly grappling with. On the one hand I’m fascinated with ideas about disappearance and withdrawal, trying to set up relationships and then kind of get out of the way; it is to some degree a critical urge, and a devotional one, and these gestures seem important to me and are part of what I want to…express I suppose. At the same time though you know, Beckett is an incredible writer and is super important to me but I doubt he would matter nearly as much to me if instead of writing these beautiful, hard, crushing plays he just spent his whole life taking apart the works of James Joyce and talking about this deconstructive project as a meta critique of notions of authorship or whatever.
This conversation with David Raymond Conroy grew from multiple lectures he has given, namely I know that fantasies are full of lies at Spike Island in 2013. He is currently Performance Writer-in-Residence at Camden Arts Centre. Further information can be found through Seventeen Gallery.