On Hands

30 Sep

Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say, but when I think about drawing, I think about hands – hands as ‘authentic’ appendages, contraptions of tactility and communication, brutality and sensuality, through which we shape the world. Drawing suggests a progenitive link between maker and art object; a link embraced by some proponents of a conservative, craft-conscious art that stands in opposition to the realities of the contemporary art market, with its armies of underpaid interns and fetish for high-spec industrial sheens. But we could see it another way. In the mid-60s Allan Kaprow articulated the idea that painting might be considered as a record of a performance, rather than the eschatological terminus towards which all art-making must tend. In shifting emphasis from materiality to temporality – by figuring the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures – he suggested a different model of engagement with pictorial representation, in which all marks are unavoidably the record of their maker.



We like to watch Picasso draw because Picasso was ‘a genius’. Witnessing his body at work, his guiding hand, confirms the authorship of the mark, his mark, on the page. This romantic view of artistic production is reminiscent of divine paternity: the hand that reaches out to Adam, shaping him from dirt; the male maker’s hand as an echo of God’s. Picasso’s fluid and instinctual use of the charcoal (he doesn’t appear to be deciding which marks to make; they simply happen) also illustrates Heidegger’s notion of the ‘ready-to-hand’, which, to oversimplify, describes our practical relation to things that are ‘handy’ or useful.



And then there’s Matthew Barney, who twists the idea of drawing as an expression of bodily skill into a bizarre and self-regarding display in which the drawing (as in the noun, the art object) is the tortured product of an athletic overcoming of obstacles he built himself. Barney’s Drawing Restraint works are fundamentally silly, but their will to mastery illustrates an important etymological point. ‘Hand’, from the Old English ‘hond’: power, control, possession.



It would follow, then, that the loss of the hands means the loss of control. There’s a scene in the film version of Akira (1988) when we enter the mind of Tetsuo, the traumatised orphan struggling to deal with the onset of psychic powers. The world around him begins to crack and shatter, fissures shooting through the concrete like Lichtenberg Figures, but this is no ordinary earthquake. When the cracks invade Tetuso’s body (and by extension, his mind), the first things to go are his fingers, his hands, his wrists. Dissolving hands prefigure the dissolving self.



Dissolution isn’t always bad. Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 contains a passage in which the author compares two depictions of disappearing hands, and extrapolates from them a mediation on possible futures. He analyses Joan of Arc (1879), by the French naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, in which the future saint is shown haunted by angels, gazing towards her destiny as a martyr. (Lerner also wrote about the painting for frieze.) Bastien-Lepage was criticised at the time for his failure to reconcile the spiritual and concrete dimensions within the painting – the floating figures of transparent saints and the rural realism of the world in which they appear – but for Lerner this creates a ‘glitch in the pictorial matrix’: Joan’s searching fingers become transparent at the tips, intimating her future transformation, through death, into a saint. Lerner contrasts this with the scene in Back to the Future (1985) in which Marty disrupts the prehistory of his family, making his siblings fade from a family snapshot. Lerner deploys these images as symbols for the presence and absence of certain futures, and the hands motif neatly echoes the language of clocks: hands are how we measure time.



And there are hands that persist after the death, the collapse of an individual’s futures: uncannily active body parts, like Thing from the Addam’s Family, say, or the twitching, seemingly reanimated CGI hand that features in Heads May Roll (2014) by Benedict Drew, recently on show in Matt’s Gallery. HD technology allows us to extend the human image into screen-space, creating ambiguous forms of imagined embodiment that thrive in the ‘uncanny valley‘. Drew’s work harnesses fragmentation – bodily, but also formal – to make a point about the strange abjection/empowerment (virtual) images produce in relatation to (actual) bodies.



If hands suggest tactility between bodies and objects; they also symbolise wider forms of apprehension and communication. Drew’s hand is evocative of ancient, ghoulish tropes of Horror fiction, Frankenstein in particular (note the eerie green background of the image above, reminiscent of Hammer Horror lighting effects); they also suggest forms of embodiment beyond the cyberpunk dream of the human corpus infiltrated and enhanced by gadgets, nanotechnology, wires and nodes. At the end of Terminator II, the cyborg’s complete moral conversion, from murderous machine to surrogate father, is communicated his final, dying gesture as he is consumed by molten metal. The universal hand-signal of approval, affirmation, positivity and friendship constitutes the ludicrously poignant crux of the film, its non-verbal emotional payoff.



If hands can communicate the inner emotional truths we (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) can’t quite put into words, in the context of crime and punishment they more straightforwardly confirm our identity, and, by extension, guilt. Towards the end of Seven (1995), Kevin Spacey’s character John Doe walks into the police station of the unnamed city in a Christ-like pose of surrender, in broad daylight, wearing a white shirt splattered with blood. His arms are ribboned with red streaks; his fingertips are swaddled in surgical tape. Detectives Mills and Somerset have been hunting Doe for months, but have thus far been bamboozled by their failure to identify him by his fingerprints (Doe leaves plenty at the scene, but they aren’t on any databases). This is because he doesn’t have any: John Doe slices the skin off his fingers between every murder, and the skin grows back in different patterns each time. This small if brutal act of self-mutilation effectively renders him invisible in the eyes of the law.

These preliminary thoughts – most of which aren’t actually related to drawing at all – will frame later investigations into the works in this year’s Drawing Prize. In a few days I’ll be posting an interview with Kate Morell, whose drawing A.V.M. 1954 screenshot 2013-12-10 (3) confronts the politics of touching and display in relation to archaeological objects.

In the meantime, here’s the customary cringe-inducing, mildly funny, tangentially related YouTube clip. (This is the internet, after all.)


Drawing it Out

16 Sep

The 20th annual Jerwood Drawing Prize opens later tonight. It’s the first exhibition I’ll be covering as Writer in Residence and I’m looking forward to looking at, and writing about, the work. But before we begin, a confession. I’m not a big fan of drawing.

Perhaps I should clarify. I don’t have anything against individual artists who draw, much less against drawings themselves, but the idea of drawing as a discipline – Drawing with a capital D, an institutionalised medium – makes me slightly suspicious. Traditionally the qualitative judgements in drawing are premised on verisimilitude, on the level of accuracy attained by visual facsimiles of real-world things. There’s an attendant perception of drawing as an authentic craft, something that sorts the wheat from the chaff, a litmus test of artistic skill. But skill is a boring concept. Its relevance evaporates at the horizon of capability: some people have it, others simply don’t. I also feel uneasy about reinforcing the idea of drawing as a politically ignorant medium, a species of formal purism that tends to overlook its own commodity status while producing highly desirable, decorative objects. Drawings are small and transportable; they are easy to frame and sell. Commercial gallerists love them. So does the general public: the Drawing Prize is Jerwood’s best-attended annual exhibition.

I do not air these prejudices in order to mount a pre-emptive critique of the exhibition I’ll be writing about over the coming weeks, but merely to assert a position I can’t really defend in the first place and which I hope will grow and alter over that time. It is apparent to me, though, that drawing qua drawing – a medium ring-fenced from the myriad of interchangeable genres and modes contemporary artists operate through, from sculpture to film to tumblr feeds – has an anachronistic flavour in the context of contemporary art, at odds with the post-discipline, post-internet, post-everything zeitgeist. But this may be precisely where the strength of drawing lies: its outsiderness to current forms, construed as a form of freedom. And judging from a brief glimpse at the work on display from this evening onwards, ‘drawing’ comprises a great variety of mediums, subjects approaches and tones.

You can find out a little about myself and my work at my website. Over the coming weeks I’ll talk to various artists, attempt to decipher out the narratives encoded in individual works, and think about the show as a whole, as a collective entity. I’ll also consider what place drawing has, or might have, in the wider framework of artistic and economic conditions that currently surround the Prize. Hopefully, I can lay some unexamined assumptions to rest by doing so.

One final thing: the image above. I haven’t yet worked out how to caption jpegs on this blog yet, so I’ll have to include a credit here. Plan B by Lexi Strauss. Acrylic on paper. Photography: Benjamin Cosmo Westoby

Conversations with April

30 Aug

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s work sits between art and design; advanced technology and engineering. Their ongoing investigation into materials, and the political systems in which they exist, result in works that question use, value, and our increasingly symbiotic interdependence with the world of technology. In their studio, we discussed their new commission for Jerwood Visual Arts, ‘Giving More to Gain More‘ (2014), a series of LED sculptures that emit words and phrases taken from email conversations with the manufacturers of the lights, based in China. The result is a manufacturing ‘pidgin’ language; odd, a little eerie, crossing cultural and geographical divides, but linked by a strange specificity.

Giving More to Gain More (2013)

Giving More to Gain More (2013)


Basia: This piece seems quite different to your previous works. 

Revital: For us it’s always a natural progression from the other works – I’m interested to hear why you think it’s different?

Basia: Perhaps because of the focus on language and text, and the vernacular of manufacturing, rather than the process itself. What seems to be thematic in your work is the transportation of objects or materials out of their ‘usual’ habitats, and representing them way that alters our understanding of their use, or presence in our lives. This focus on language is more ambiguous in terms of use and value. 

Revital: This language came out of a previous work, called ‘75 Watt‘ (2013), and another, a wolf in a forest – ‘Nowhere a Shadow‘ (2013). We ordered all these LED lights for those projects, but there was something peculiar about the language of manufacturing, which we increasingly found fascinating.

Tuur: Our main focus is on materials and production. And that’s very broad. We made a piece with a pigeon – ‘Pigeon D’or‘ (2011) [a bacteria that makes pigeons defecate soap] – which was very much about biology as a material, but also the cultural, political and ethical consequences of using biology as such, in the context of mass manufacturing, but also in terms of synthetic biology.

In this instance, it was the language of production that intrigued us, and when we as artists think about these processes, we don’t think of them as purely technical. We consider them as cultural and political processes too. In ’75 Watt’, we were intrigued by the product being made, but as much by the bodies on the assembly line, too. It goes back to Frederick Winslow Taylor and the ‘efficient movement’, and time-motion studies by the Gilbreths.

At the time, we were doing a lot of work in China, and often via platforms like Alibaba.com, which are very much contemporary platforms for global mass manufacture. It struck us that this language that emerges is a pidgin language. We saw this piece as a way of reflecting on the ideas of what ‘making’ might still mean as an artist where outsourcing has become a process of making art.




Revital: It’s a reality of our work, because we use so many technological materials – they all come from China. I mean, you can get anything there. So many things are impossible to find here, but one email through Alibaba.com and 20 people want to talk to you about LEDs. There were also so many conversations around the materials themselves, which have such a specific nature. Descriptions of light, specifications, colours, letters and numbers and specs – super technical things. The only way to get these materials is to go through these conversations. That’s our manufacturing reality at this moment.

Basia: Is it related to a language (if you can call it that) like spam? A pragmatic language that occurs at the intersection between people and technology? Standing in front of your installation, the words and terms change according to where you position yourself, your body mediates the communicative element of the technology. 

Tuur: It’s a nice analogy. It definitely has many parallels. These words do go through a natural process of filtering – the people optimise their way of talking to you, in trying to get you to buy something.

Revital: Although with spam you have the sense you are just 1 in a million of copy-and-pastes, whereas here it so quickly it becomes a personal conversation.

Tuur: Yes, spam in its algorithmic nature is not like this. All the words displayed in Jerwood Visual Arts are taken from conversations we’ve had with the manufacturers of the LED lights they are displayed in. These were from April, that was her name. Obviously these are just snippets of longer emails, which we were considering to display in the gallery, but we chose not to.

Basia: They feel abstract, in a way in a word game can be – there’s a playfulness to them. Where language is usually clear to those fluent in it, words immediately recognisable, here there are long periods of not-knowing, as the words shift and reassemble. Is this also significant in the context of the cross-cultural conversations being had,  typical of many manufacturing exchanges between China and elsewhere?

Tuur: Another thing I was thinking of, when you mentioned technology and spam, is that it might well be that some of these conversations have been automatically translated, through Google or something else. A few years ago we made a work inspired by Turing, and how he defined artificial intelligence, and how central language is to our definition of humanness and human intelligence as opposed to a machinic knowledge. We made something like a music video, where we took lyrics from ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles, and passed it multiple times through online translators, eventually back to English. In the end, we got this strange, new, poetic computer understanding of language.

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Beatles?’ (2007)
Video, sound , 04 minutes 54 seconds

Revital: With this work, we were really interested in Alibaba.com, and this marketplace. Before the website entered our lives, we always wanted to see materials. The ideal is to go to a shop, to see and touch, and think with the material in your hand. But if you want to work with more technological materials, then it’s just not possible. So, you have to put your trust in Alibaba.com. You are never quite sure if it’s reliable, but once it becomes a part of your life, it’s like an Aladdin’s cave of materials. Everything, everything.

Basia: So it’s a portal into an infinite market place, and I wonder about the ethical dimensions of this. What is the consequence of this unfettered, unlimited access to materials? And I think this relates to a wider question about the consequence of China’s position as exporter to the world.

Tuur: If you go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, to these electronic markets, they’re so vast. Physically having been there, it helps to understand how it is possible that there are thousands of companies manufacturing every little thing, producing masses and masses of it.

Revital: It’s probably not going to last there. It’s already moving towards Vietnam and Cambodia, and the ethical implications of that are very interesting. I wouldn’t say we have a direct answer, but that’s why we are so fascinated in working there, and working in that context.

Tuur: I think in terms of the ethics, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that however much we think that something is ethically complex, we will always be implicated within it. What we’re trying to do with the work is partly to explore this ethical dimension, but always to start with the acknowledgement that we’re part of the process. In the piece we’re presenting at Jerwood Visual Arts, there’s an interesting reversal. We did a crazy amount of hand-work on the pieces, welding them all together, and then soldering them. In some ways, it’s the opposite: the instructions came from China, and we did all the manual labour.

Revital: But we also put work into illuminating these sentences from a young Chinese girl working in a factory, we wanted to giver her presence. She’s not just an anonymous service provider.

Tuur: When it comes to these ethical questions, and especially biology as a material, in the context of industrial production, I think these ethical implications are very profound. For example, in ’75 Watt’ we wanted to represent contemporary factories in China, in which actually labour conditions are very reasonable (although of course it’s very difficult for me to comment on that). But we didn’t want to find a sweatshop, where people sit on the floor. Although they exist. Because that would have made the work very different, and perhaps less interesting. It’s important to keep the ambiguity at an ethical level, because it’s there that we as artists keep on working and looking, walking that path.

Basia: Could you talk about how this work fits into the broader trajectory of your practice?

Revital: It feels like each project gives birth to the other (with many links). And they come together in a few different routes, which for us make perfect sense. With this commission, we wanted to pursue this language because of our earlier work with the translations of ‘Yesterday’. It’s been cooking for a while. But it is also relevant to the work we made where we assembled various technological objects and removed all the minerals from them, casting them back into a mineral form. It’s about taking apart an industrial, electronic product and exploding it, exploring the people who assemble it, the minerals that allow it to be, the places through which it comes.

H / AlCuTaAu (2014)


Tuur: It’s about seeing the systems that underly these modes of production as political. ’75 Watt’ came out of a quote from a handbook of mechanical engineering, which says that an average labourer on an average day can produce 75 watts, average. What we liked about that was the tension between biology and technology, a tension between the biological body on the assembly line, that can not be quantified and characterised, and cannot be understood by the same logic of engineering which it’s really relying on, the quantification, characterisation, standardisation. It cannot fit within this larger system of production. The pigeons are similar – synthetic biology is a branch of technology and science, and the people we were working with had the same sort of ideals – to standardise and characterise biology to form part of a more reliable system. That, somewhere down the line, is a capitalist system. So, these political systems are underlying modes of production, with regards to biology and technology, whether at the scale of the human body or the assembly line, or bacterial production, or urban ecologies.


75 Watt (2013)


Revital: It’s about exploring the system of manufacturing when the engineering logic is removed. When there isn’t a clear use value or end point.

Hi-low tech: Shelley James, Platonic solids and quasi-crystallography

26 Aug

Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here.  


Let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors.

(Variations of the sign that hung above Plato’s academy)

In August, I met with Shelley James and, in the prismatic glow of her contribution to the Jerwood Makers Open 2014, we talked about her ongoing exploration into Platonic solids, Euclidian geometry, quasicrystalline structures and visual perception.

Physical forms, for James, are dense, layered, complex things suspended within a wider, less visible or knowable world. Linking philosophies of form and spirit via intensive technical processes, her shapes, installed in Jerwood Visual Arts, are deeply contemplative and beguiling. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange, with additional links, images, footnotes and further materials for thought.


How did these shapes evolve? 

My research at the RCA was on visual perception, and the ways in which the brain processes information from the eyes in order to understand space. This led to my exploration of how to suspend structures within glass. I wanted to create a special trick with the eyes, because with this medium you can find patterns and structures that are apparently floating, or you can replicate one set of patterns to appear as if their facets are multiplying – the optical and material qualities of the glass can be manipulated to create a confusion in the brain. And so I developed various techniques for doing this.

I realised that in order for this to operate really strongly, the patterns needed to be perfectly regular. Otherwise you shortcut that illusion and simply make a narrative. I developed a technique for layering very precise patterns within the glass, which involved working with a glass blower, but I also used classic printmaking tools, for example an Intaglio technique – where you cut away at a material. Together we worked out how to build up layers with these pocketed parts of air inside each one.

Elemental Symmetries, 2014


Elemental Symmetries, 2014


If you look at the forms closely, you can see there’s an embryo, then another layer, and then the next layer has some printed effects on it, so it’s mixing additive and subtractive techniques together.

In the past, I’ve mostly worked with curved surfaces, and I’ve spent a lot of time observing how they create a ripple and magnification effect. Here, I wanted to deal with patterns and archetypal forms but also the metaphysical, metaphorical, philosophical side of such forms. It’s about the essential, about our experience of the world. I developed another technique to cut them in to perfect shapes – slicing them from a cylinder into something else. I worked from an old book on geometry, which gave me the angles between the Platonic solids. They are sort of the ideal sculpture, because they look so beautiful from all ends.

Platonic multiplications

So their combinations with themselves and with each other give rise to endless complexities, which anyone who is to give a likely account of reality must survey.
The Timaeus, Plato

Using a milling machine and a CAD programme, I ensured that all the forms were facially regular, and then I used the same technique they’ve used since Egyptian times to smooth each piece of glass using grit. You rub the glass over the grit and it slowly wears away, gradually using a finer and finer grit until you graduate to a pumice wheel, to perfectly smooth the surfaces.

How do you see them?

I suppose what was paradoxical about making them was that although they are very technical and time-intensive, each one actually relates to one of the elements, and so I spent a great deal of time thinking about that, too.

This one, the dodecahedron is aether, the divine; this one is an icosahedron, and these are water, fire, air, earth [pointing to each shape]. I found as I made each one, I kept thinking about these elemental qualities as well. They started to have a strong emotional resonance, more than just a technical quality. My hope is that they transcend their material, technical presence to offer some way of thinking about other dimensions of our experience. That’s why I like working with print and materials, because at worst, they need to be well made. But if they transcend to something else, then that’s fantastic.

The knowledge of which geometry aims is the knowledge of the eternal. 
—Republic, VII, 52.

And why is a dodecahedron aether? What is the relationship between the geometry and metaphysics?

Plato and some of the other Greek philosophers were trying to work out the distinction between what they could see, and what lies behind or beneath the visible. They understood that there must be more than what we can visually obtain in the world. They were trying to get to the essence of what we were seeing and perceiving, and they felt that by looking closer at forms, and phenomena around them, they could identify particular shapes which had a philosophical and material resonance with what they were observing.

Plato’s idea was that our view of what we see is like a sheet, thrown over some divine reality which is just beyond our gross mortal ability to see things. A sheet thrown over a rich, fabulous, extraordinary world, and all you see are these shapes poking out. These Platonic solids are as close we can be to seeing behind that sheet. They described the elements via different shapes: a cube is solid, it has an up and a down, cardinal points. An octahedron is air, and it has a kind of forward motion, it has a movement to it. Fire is pointy, fire creates prismatic effects, it’s sharp. Others are mobile.

[Plato wrote most about the solids in Timaeus (c.360 BC). Earth, a cube. Air, an octahedron. Fire, a tetrahedron and water, an icosahedron. According to various sources, these related to the sensations or visual phenomena of the matter itself. For example: the burning heat of fire is sharp, like tetrahedra. Or, the flowing form of an icosahedron, which pours and tumbles, fluid-like.

Of the fifth solid, aether, Plato wrote:

that ..the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.]

They began to question: why is it that the stars stay up there? Or, where do we go when we die? What is beyond this realm? They looked at starfish, hands, and deduced a five-fold logic from these forms. It’s related to a five-fold symmetry – celestial. I was reading about those metaphysical, poetic qualities, and so I found myself investing some of these qualities in the work as I developed them.

The way that they play and manipulate the light makes them appear  form-less. It’s not that they are visual tricks, but our understanding of the space inside the shape is unsure and full of doubt. They are malleable, according to where you stand in relation to them. And that’s perhaps the essence of these metaphysical elements: you’re never quite sure of what is in front of you, and your position to these things is always changing and mutating. 

Precisely. It’s about trying to express that fragile equilibrium. I used microscope lamps to display them, and I wanted to think about how the presentation reflects this wider chain of fragility.

Is this part of a wider series?

The Jerwood Visual Arts commission allowed me to delve into this properly for the first time. I had been working with a crystallographer on symmetry, but inside curved forms, because they give all sorts of rippling uncertainties, depending on scale and position. This funding allowed me to explore new territory. This was the first time I’d made anything like this.

How might you develop this way of working in the future? 

I’m hoping to depart from Euclidian geometry, where the forms are confined in the world of fractions and angles from Greek geometry. I’d like to explore the next generation of math and crystals, quasi-crystollography. They’ve just discovered it thanks to new technology, and there’s a subtle variation of the five-fold shape called a quasi-crystal, for which Dan Schechtman received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 2011. It’s looking at irrational numbers, which never repeat again in infinity. They have a whole mystery and mythology about them.

Electron diffraction pattern of an icosahedral Ho-Mg-Zn quasicrystal

[The notion of an 'aperiodic crystal' – a form that is irregular, or without translational symmetry, was first explored by Schrödinger in What is Life? (1944).]


What I’ve been surprised by is that expressing geometry like this triggers a poetic response. I am wondering – and its never been done before – what happens when we put this new kind of geometry into optical forms. We don’t know what we’re going to get yet.




‘TTTT’: Interview with Heather Phillipson

14 Jul

I met up to talk to Heather Phillipson whose work Zero-Point Garbage Matte (2012) featured in the exhibition ‘TTTT’ at Jerwood Space to ask her about her practice.

Shama Khanna: Where to start? As I said in my email I feel there are a lot of questions I don’t know how to ask about yet, before we start a conversation.

Heather Phillipson: I liked it when you said you didn’t know how to ask your questions. I often feel like I don’t know how to ask something until it’s underway – especially with making – and then it’s too late and you’re midway through a conversation you didn’t anticipate. 

S: I think I meant that there are threads that run through all your works and I don’t know whether to start with those, or with one work in particular … 

H: I think it’s good to start with something specific, but either one of those approaches could be specific – a specific thread, or a specific work – working through the links. It’s something that I find challenging myself, and sometimes generative too – what are the specificities? How can I articulate them? It’s something you’re often required to do as an artist – to put a frame around your practice, to put names on bits of it – to translate it into words, to tie it down in some way. And, actually, on any given day, I feel I could speak about my practice differently – there are forking paths all over it. Maybe you could say that for all practices to some extent, but it’s definitely something I’m aware of with my own work. I could talk about it in terms of video, say, or music, rhythm, collage, language, the voice, the body, sculpture, architecture, physical and digital navigation of space, colour, line-breaks, metaphors… and that’s just the obvious, concrete stuff. And I have talked about it in relation to all of these things, which is sometimes the useful aspect of framing – having the opportunity to re-confront the practice, or to transpose it, or to change my mind, or to locate it differently. So that element of not knowing what something is, or where to start, or re-asking it what it’s doing, is the same for me – and that’s actually a big part of what I’m addressing.

Zero-Point Garbage Matte from Heather Phillipson on Vimeo.

S: Can you tell me about your decision to put most of your videos online?

H: There are different reasons. Probably the clearest one is that the internet’s a context to which the work is referring and, moreover, using. I take material from the internet, so by re-locating the videos there it feels that there’s an exchange – the videos return to (one of the) place(s) that birthed them. But the videos also take from and refer to multiple other real and imagined places, so why not push them back out into the world in multiple forms and places too? Maybe this also relates to the question of framing – I’m preoccupied by the possibilities of context, and what might be added, or lost, by, say, watching the video at home on your laptop as opposed to inside a highly controlled gallery installation. Maybe a small screen and crappy speakers is not, for me, the optimum experience of the work, but I’m interested that it can be an experience of the work and certainly a very different one. I think of it as the work having separate but related lives.

S: It’s a bit like the difference between the performance of poetry and reading it in a book, in a way, two such different formats. 

H: That’s a good comparison. Maybe it has something to do with live-ness? There’s the intimate relationship that you might have with something when you’re reading it in a book or watching it on a laptop, when it’s just you and the thing – being ‘alone’ together. And then there’s the experience of encountering it in a space where you have to engage with it physically, and with other people too. I think both involve a kind of ‘live-ness’, a mix of private and public in different proportions, but that ‘live-ness’ is qualitatively different .

A poetry reading has an obvious public live-ness, but there can be a brilliant intimacy to it too. The potency of just a body speaking in space, to other bodies – there’s something really physically intense about that. Speaking about it now, it imakes me think of when I saw Robert Ashley read live, with no musical accompaniment – it was mind-blowingly intense, and long too – and that seemed to the be the point, the drifting in and out – that it becomes about something else – not understanding necessarily, but the flow between the ‘notes’. In contemporary poetry, there’s a tendency to opt for brevity in readings, in order to hold attention – almost like an acknowledgment that you can’t take in that level of intensity (and intimacy) and really attend to it at the same time. Whereas artists often work with that intensity, and rhythms of distraction, in a different way – pushing it. 

S: I’d imagine you’d need to be brief if you want people to pay attention to the construction of a sentence, for example.

H: Yes, if you want people to hear what’s been packed into it… poetry’s so dense – you’re not really meant to ‘get it’ on a single hearing, or maybe not even on several hearings (or readings). Because it’s so dense you need space around it and, later, repetition. You need space around the words because they need to resonate in your head. And then you need to re-encounter them. Perhaps that’s like the different versions of the video installations too – what happens, or changes, with repeated exposure.

S: One of the hallmarks of your work is there isn’t enough time to reflect – you’re immersed in this barrage, almost, not barrage but a seamless flow of words … and you’re looking down, your body’s forming part of something that’s outside of you.

H: I think it goes back to this issue of multiplicity, and some idea of stuffing or snapping time, treating it spatially – making available different routes or perspectives or moments. Almost simultaneously, for example, you might become hyper-conscious of your body in relation to the video, and in the (public) space, and then a bit of music will kick in, or stop, and you’ll notice something beside you, and then the rhythm changes, and that might pull you into the video. But, again, all this is something you can come back to – there’s probably no desire, on either part, to give it all away, or to have it all given away.

S: Do you edit your videos to a score?

H: No, I edit relatively spontaneously, like composing, which is how I write  as well – it’s really about rhythm. It all happens in the editing, in that process of banging things together, trying to find the electricity.

S: Do you think about an audience?

H: Not really – at least, not when I’m inside the making. Bonnie Camplin once said to me that she thinks about art as a ‘private epistemological adventure’. I love this expression. It’s about going on an adventure with the material. Once the work’s made it finds its audience and I don’t really mind who that audience is. It doesn’t need to be for everyone, but it can be for anyone.

S: Is there anything you’d like to talk about in your work that doesn’t get spoken about?

H: People often ask about the structure of the videos – how words are used, or music, or collage or sculpture, but one thing that’s important, that doesn’t come up that much, is emotion – love, terror, anger, joy. Maybe it’s not that fashionable to talk about emotion in relation to art – that thing we can’t control, and then try to.

Somebody asked me recently why I like irony so much. This threw me a little, the assumption that I’m aiming for irony because, for me, it’s not irony – my work isn’t ironic. In that way, at least, it’s really quite straightforward – despairing or celebratory, resolute or terrified, or all of them at once…But I found it interesting that the work was being interpreted like that. Maybe because it holds what appear to be conflicting positions simultaneously…

 S: Maybe because the humour is quite deadpan.

H: Yes, maybe because the tone isn’t easily read, it resembles irony? It doesn’t for me, but I see how the tonal shifts are confusing – how one tone comes to a sudden halt, and just as you’re getting into the fun, it becomes anxiety – it flips. But, for what it’s worth, the emotions are what they are. Often the starting points for the videos are things that I feel deeply troubled by, or ecstatic about. The work frequently begins with an emotion. Or mixed emotions. So it’s less about irony and more about contrariness and complexity, not knowing whether to be in love with the world or to smash its face in – the difficulty of sustaining

S: I felt that from the Splashy Phasings (2013), that it was really moving, even though it was just 3 minutes long, like a commercial.

H: I’m glad. Superficially, you wouldn’t necessarily read it that way – there’s a veneer of absurdity, which is comedic…but then the tragedy is rammed in, or is riding along beneath it all along, or floods in when it stops.


Splashy Phasings from Heather Phillipson on Vimeo.




These Things Take Time

26 May

Oliver ‘Laric Mansudae Overseas Project’, 2014

The exhibition title ‘TTTT’ originally referred to the acronym for ‘These Things Take Time’ but the phrase has since been replaced by the internet shorthand for ‘Too Tired To Type’. The change may be indicative of a changing conception of time since 1984 when the pop band The Smiths produced an album entitled These Things Take Time (15 years before CDs became commercially available) up to the present moment where the internet is the dominant medium used for work, play and procrastination. Boredom means something completely different now our smart phones are here to accompany us while we wait for the bus. Waiting for a letter to arrive, and reply sent by snail mail is a distant memory – such an inefficient speed of communication is remembered almost like a fiction. These things are no longer expected to take up our time.

  Cécile B. Evans ‘How happy a Thing can be’, 2014

Cécile B. Evans has spoken about how September 11th marked a sea change for her, from which point on she could no longer distinguish images documenting the event from her subjective experience of being in New York and witnessing the planes fly overhead towards the World Trade Centre. The proliferation of image culture has the effect of conditioning our awareness and our memories in exactly this way. Oliver Laric’s Mansudae Overseas Project (2014) cleverly reverses the normal flow of images, rethinking what it means to be part of a globally networked society. Mansudae Overseas Projects is a construction company in North Korea which makes monuments and memorial statues for a Western audience. Laric’s project was the first commission the company accepted from an individual client. Instead of an heroic sculpture of some recognisable public figure, the sculpture is of an anonymous Asian man in non-professional workers clothing – possibly putting a face to the anonymous North Korean sculptor himself. This one-off gesture suggests the limits of the internet perceived as universally accessible and democratic – pointing to somewhere where the conception of time and production are purposefully different from our own.

Johann Arens Marte e Venere – A Hand Held Monument (video still), 2013

In his recent video Marte e Venere – A Hand Held Monument (2013) Johann Arens presents an imagined continuity between the surface of a touch screen and the smooth, strokable surfaces of classical monuments, in particular the Venus and Mars from the Museum of Roman History in Rome. In his installation The Nest of the Wild Stones (2014) Nicolas Brooks also considers the ‘not quite real’ materiality of digitally printed objects putting together a landscape of exceptionally flawless surfaces and textures framing a video showing a series of 3D printing mishaps.

Nicholas Brooks The Nest of the Wild Stones, 2014

In the moment the printing process is interrupted, the difference between the perfect image of the model on the screen and the physical impossibility of that image is made clear. The delicate infrastructure supporting the surface planes relates to natural structures such as honey combs and webbing, making the installation, otherwise devoid of the natural world, in fact very natural by introducing ideas of entropy and fallibility. Although we are ever closer to mechanising many human processes and products of nature these things still take a lot longer than the ceaseless rhetoric driving technological progress within capitalist economies.

Nicholas Brooks Applications (excerpt), 2014

‘TTTT’: Benedict Drew ‘Mainland Rock’, 2014

23 May


Forming part of the exhibition ‘TTTT’ recently opened at Jerwood Space, London, Mainland Rock (2014) is a three-part video by Benedict Drew filmed in and around New Zealand while the artist was on a residency there earlier this year. The video takes the form of a strange drug-addled trip – strange in that it seems to climax in a paranoiac come-down where buildings are accused of ignoring us and libraries stocked full of books advertise our body’s ‘lackness’. We watch as the camera pans past rows of shelves fading in and out of focus while a voiceover reads, “It lacks all those books, all of them. It hasn’t read them. And what it does have, its ‘have-ness’, is so lossy, so compressed, so full of holes and gaps and … voids. Connected by images not words and writing. But not even images (connected by intensities)”.

Drew’s work at once embodies a feeling of alienation within the built environment around us, while using the same level of technological sophistication to express these insights. His collaging of sound and image defines a particular space, whether of the gallery architecture, or of the structure of our minds.

He straddles analogue and digital technologies, scoring visuals to a soundtrack that recalls the noisy rhythm of a slowed down film projector, here simulating the heightened sensations of a panic attack. At different points during the film the grading of the image separates into red, blue and green, a glitch used to different effect in the video’s epilogue as pink and blue frames flicker strobiscopically, imitating sight as if through eyelids closed tightly against bright sunlight. Drew points to a consciousness shared with the progress of technology where its ‘lossi-ness’ can be compared to our own.



New exhibition opening: ‘TTTT’

7 May

TTTT is a new exhibition opening next week at the Jerwood Space (14 May – 22 June 2014) featuring new and reconfigured works by Johann Arens, Nicholas Brooks, Benedict Drew, Cécile B. Evans, Oliver Laric, Nicole Morrisand Heather Phillipson. Curator Sarah Williams has conceived of the exhibition as an exploration into the new materiality of screen-based culture where our day-to-day experience of being online influences our perception of and our interactions within the physical world around us. In this sense of a newfound reflexivity between our on and offline selves, Williams observes how this shift is reflected in language;

“Where the acronym TTTT refers to the phrase ‘These Things Take Time’, an internet search engine further reveals other associated meanings – ‘Too Tired To Type’ ‘Too Tired To Talk’ and so on. These slippages subtly hint at rapid developments within our language which are influenced by the internet, and to our own experience of ‘things’ and ‘time’ which are also changing in the current technological, economic and political environment.”

All of the artists have a strong online presence already so, before the exhibition opens next Wednesday 14 May when I will begin blogging about the show, I thought I’d point in the direction of a few of these links:


Agnes is an online bot who you can visit on the Serpentine’s website.


‘Heads Will Roll’ was the title of Drew’s recent solo show at Matt’s Gallery, London.


Transit of the Megaliths(excerpt)‘ (2013) shown recently at Rotterdam Film Festival 2014.


Images from Phillipson’s recent solo show at Art Brussels entitled ‘THE ORIGINAL EROGENOUS ZONE


The latest in Laric’s series of Versions (2012) videos.


Documentation of Arens’ recent moving image and installation-based projects


Documentation of Morris’ recent performance and installation-based projects









Lucy Clout and Marianna Simnett selected to develop their #WWTSOM? projects for the next stage in the awards

22 Apr

Film and Video Umbrella and Jerwood Charitable Foundation have announced that artists Lucy Clout and Marianna Simnett are the winners of the second edition of the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards. Both have been selected to receive commissions of £20,000, to allow them to work on major new moving-image projects. These new works will premiere at Jerwood Space, London and CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow in 2015. Looking forward to seeing what comes of this fantastic opportunity – building on the successes of all four artists up to this stage in the awards. Below are some clues of which direction they might take their work in. And for background on their projects, re-read my interviews with Lucy and Marianna on this blog.

Lucy Clout

In her new commission, Lucy Clout will continue her focus on the background noise of everyday life, moving beyond the background voices of the TV extras who were the subject of her first-stage project, The Extra’s Ever-Moving Lips, to the thoughts that lurk at the back of people’s minds. Casting her eye over an online world where private lives (and private parts) are increasingly on public display, she will look at acts of self-exposure, such the case of US politician Anthony Weiner, not for what they reveal in a shocking or scandalised way but for what they lay bare about the mundane complications that occur when words refuse to disappear. 

Marianna Simnett 

In Marianna Simnett’s The Udder, the purity of milk and the struggle to keep it free from outside contamination are symbols of other forms of pristine innocence, and the wider threat of corruption. Further developing the central themes of her original work, Simnett will broaden her focus from the farmyard to more far-flung, mythological horizons – from the ‘sworn virgins’ of the mountains of Albania (and their esoteric oaths of chastity), to the figures of medieval saints as embodiments of female virtue.

WWTSOM? Interview with Kate Cooper

9 Apr

Unknown Species in Full Resolution is 4 mins long – the length of a TV commercial break, but the models and narration are selling digital post-production rather than fashion or cosmetics. Can you tell me more about the flow of digital image projections of ourselves compared to our interactions in real-time?

When I approached producing this piece I had been interested in how we might occupy images to create new forms of agency, how images in themselves perform and how this is divorced from what they represent. I wanted to explore surface using a particular set of tools; creating images that were instantly recognizable from mass advertising whilst at the same time combining abstract liquids within the same frame as the performers. The product shot is usually kept quite separate from the models in commercials and as I started to combine the liquids and the women and became interested in strategies that allow us to refuse or re-direct our own image. I wanted to create silent images, images so recognisable that they almost disappear in this intangible flow of liquid; in turn becoming a substance for the performers to camouflage themselves with; a technique of survival.

I liked the idea of the film commission being a proposal and I approached it as a set of questions; slogans embedded with this extended trailer. I have also been exploring what forms of labor have been re-directed as art practice within more mainstream culture. The production of yourself and your image becomes a kind of labour. How you might harness your digital image in new ways and create strategies in which to do this, to refuse work and refuse labor and refuse the production of your own image.


Is beauty only as deep as your skills in post-production? Does having a digital double offer us more possibilities to act in the world?

I guess this question comes back again to agency and asking what room to manoeuvre we have. I’m glad you mentioned mass advertising as I was interested in these kinds of fictional spaces and how they could be hijacked. The language used in some mainstream adverting campaigns talks of digital technology and the production of your own image being more important than the real life skin you live in. Again, I thought this was fascinating, as advertising now completely understands the values of our individual digital image production and is selling it back to us. Advertisement’s use of this absurd ‘bio-tech’ language – a fiction itself – along with this constant abstract creation of CG images really appeals to me. I felt there was room for a re-thinking of this fiction, and a starting point was thinking what would happen if artists occupied certain mainstream brands.

Thinking about what Hito Steyerl says about image spam, I really like the idea of these lost images having a use, something seen as obsolete having a function which is maybe separate from what they actually represent. As I mentioned before, I’m interested in how images perform and are distributed and how it’s no longer really related to the images themselves. The idea of digital doubles and new ways of moving producing multiples really appeals to me and in that way I feel like the film is a proposal to think through some of these ideas. I’m also fascinated at how we are all amateurs yet highly sophisticated in how we  augment and post produce our own image. I like the idea of your image doing work for you and how you might be able to re-think its function.


You’ve described previously how images of ourselves accrue a kind of ‘capital’. How does this concept relate to the position of art and artists in the wider economy?

We can take the figure of the freelancer or ‘creative’ worker as a model that has been adopted directly from the economy of the artist. We all carry around and accrue a capital as mass consumers, with everything we do being ‘creative’ and every part of our lives a kind of negotiated labour.

This constant influx of work taking over every aspect of our lives has huge implications for most people I know, with serious ramifications – such as on our mental health. However I’m also genuinely intrigued by what this means for the creative work that artists produce. What autonomy do we have and how do we understand formats and structures now available for artists? One of the reasons I have been working with Auto Italia for many years – and working through the framework of collaborative projects – is because of the particular freedom it provides us with to make work. It provides an opportunity (and more crucially a degree of autonomy) to dictate the formats and approach to the way to work. I’m interested in refusing certain types of labor, taking control of the means of production and forming new systems, communities and ways of being.

In this piece I’m addressing advertising to a certain extent, but I think it is important to mention that most of the artists I work with also work within these economies and I’m interested in the possibilities of how this might produce new structures for producing art. One example I think of is the designers Metahaven. They collaborate and produce commercial work through their design studio responding to briefs but also produce a critical artistic practice. I think this is a really fascinating model as it is at once both commercial and critical and I feel like they negotiate it in an interesting and uncompromising way.

To return to the piece I made for the FVU/Jerwood project, I wanted to explore how much our own bodies are related to us as workers, how we have to constantly perform being artists and to think this through with women who have to use their own bodies to perform.


How come you chose to focus on women in this piece? 

I wanted to distill so many ideas and produce a really precise piece. One of which was a return to what this type of performance of labour means for women and what type of work we label women’s work. I really wanted to think this through in the film with a group of female performers and in my case commercial models.

The film naturally developed out of a couple of projects I have been involved in over the past few years, particularly thinking of a collaborative piece we presented at Tate Modern called IT’S LIKE STARING SOMEONE OUT WHO ISN’T EVEN LOOKING AT YOU. The project came out of working with Cinenova and was a way for me and two other artists (Leslie Kulesh and Jess Weisner) to respond to the their archive and really think about what it means for women to produce moving image now. Although that performance is now a few years old I think it brought up lots of interesting conversations, particularly about digital representation of women what agency images have and what that might mean for a wider community. There was a quite heated conversation which took place after the performance that really stayed with me, which was essentially a cross general debate about what images and digital representational meant which I felt really at odds with.

For this piece I was thinking about really early work I had made with young women and I wanted to think what those images might mean now, and what means of production younger women might have in a performance of the self. I focused on a certain space within commercial production which is now more than ever increasingly available domestically and I was interesting in exploring particular images, fashion, pop music, averters, beauty campaigns and the role of the female model within that considering digital representation and how these relate to our own bodies. I wanted to explore this idea of surface of highly post-produced image as something we invade. How could the images themselves be manipulated? I wanted this liquid material to be inserted within the same frame of the images of the models as an act of refusal through not allowing their image to be completely presented.


The soundtrack is very minimal but full of suspense. Can you tell me about how you conceived of the sound and image working together?

I haven’t worked with sound very much before so it was a really great opportunity to work with someone on this piece. I am fascinated by how sound produces affect and wanted to really try and have something that made you experience the images differently. For me I guess I’m really interested in cinema and moving image in general – specifically how sound and images work together on a very basic level and what kinds of affect they produce. I really wanted to try out something different with this commission and it was really great to experiment with someone.

I worked closely with a brilliant sound designer Shervin Shaeri who mainly works in advertising as well as working and collaborating with artists. We talked a bit about the parameters of working commercially and the length of certain and type sounds used to create certain viewing attention- and it was great to have something to play with and react to this certain set of parameters. I guess I worked with the sound in a slightly similar way to the images, inhabiting as well and reconfiguring them for the piece.


The last line read by the narrator ‘Some people feel a basic minimum wage would lead to more people shopping’ is dystopian but also, probably, true. Can you talk about the work in relation to sci-fi?

Sci-fi is interesting because it is always about imagining new futures but as a way of narrating the present. I like that sci-fi brings genres together to comment on the current world we live in. There is this great paragraph in the Momus Book of Japans (which annoyingly I can’t seem to find) where he talks of a Japan of the future in which everyone will work either in advertising or as a sex worker. He talks of this dystopian economy where the currency will be a straight exchange between these two forms of labour where every conversation will be concerned with dropping in a slogan from a campaign and every look or glance will be an exchange in sex work. I also really enjoy Sophia Al Maria’s writing on gulf futurism particularly how she describes the gendered space of the shopping mall, which she talks about when critiquing the architecture in the Middle East. For me it resonates so much with the regional cities here in the UK.

I’m interested in the future of industries where women particularly are paid directly with luxury goods. I was thinking about how that becomes a shortcut to an economy of your own body and a currency of our own image; like a flattening of things. Who is co-opting who? It moves towards the completely dystopian future that Momus talks about, bringing together new ways of existing. For a while I have been fascinated by the figure of the fashion blogger as someone who is always working through this production of their own image and receiving luxury goods through product placement and brand endorsement. Although this phenomena is perhaps a little less prominent now than a few years ago, I have always been interested in how gendered this is and thought it was interesting in terms of accruing the kind of capital that we spoke of before. A kind of extreme short circuit that is both interesting and terrifying.


Unknown Species in Full Resolution (2014) by Kate Cooper was commissioned for the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. A collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella, in association with CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. Film and Video Umbrella is supported by Arts Council England.