‘I’d rather be there if I could’

9 Oct

by Tom Overton

I wasn’t at ‘A Singular Line’, a panel discussion of the two video works in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2015 chaired by Elena Hill. I eavesdropped a couple of days later on SoundCloud. Scribbling notes down on a pad in front of the screen, I watched the recording roll by from left to right, the audio represented by a row of vertical equaliser bars which started as white for unplayed, then slowly shaded into orange.

The recording lasts fifty-one minutes and fifteen seconds; a nicely palindromic number, mirrored by the way the greater height of the bars at the beginning and the end show the audience’s applause. The only thing which gets in the way of the line’s symmetry is a taller bar showing the moment one of the artists, Elisa Alaluusua, moves closer to the microphone suddenly increases the volume. Finer details – the gentle, rain-like sound of cars passing along Union Street and past the gallery – are generalized out, registering on headphones, but not on the screen.

Alaluusua’s film, Unconditional Line, won second place in this year’s Jerwood Drawing Prize. It’s a record of a journey by plane from her home town Luusua, Finland to London, where she now lives and works. Rather than the line of progress the Indiana Jones films use to show flights on a map, the details here are abstracted into a seven-minute record of the grids and patterns on the runway: hieroglyphs from a writing system she admits not to understand beyond the abstract sense that they communicate safety.

Unconditional Line

Elisa Alaluusua, Unconditional Line, 2015 Video, duration: 7mins (still illustrated)


I don’t understand the original meaning of these symbols either. Nor do I remember, when I watched it for the first time a couple of weeks before, trying to. Each of them is intersected by the sound of her daughter drawing out notes on the cello – not so much the lines of a melody, but the varying tautnesses of the strings and the bow, slowly and resonantly scraping against each other. I thought about the texture of the tarmac, and the texture of the strings, and how each was a core, running from pegs to bridge, wound round and round with a thinner, spiralling wire. The sound telescopes a distance of a couple of thousand miles into a couple of millimetres, all the more intimately for being a recording by a mother of a daughter.

‘I don’t like looking out of the window’, Alaluusua said of her attitude to travel at one point during the discussion; ‘I’d rather be there if I could.’ If her piece shows a journey through the things at its periphery, Cleaning Up by Sean Maltby very specifically shows the journey itself. The journey, that is, of a rake with a camera attached to it, across different surfaces – the gravel is the noisiest – rattling through the gallery headphones and coming to a stop after one minute and six seconds.

Sean Maltby, Cleaning Up, 2014 Video, duration 1min 6sec (still illustrated)

Sean Maltby, Cleaning Up, 2014 Video, duration 1min 6sec (still illustrated)


In a review mentioned at various points in the evening, which compared Chinese and European practices of drawing, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones picked up on Alaluusua’s piece: he ‘would probably be more purist about what constitutes drawing’, and not allow it in. ‘Doesn’t video get plenty of space elsewhere?’ he asked.

What would this purity look like? Reducing things to the marking tool, the marked surface, or support, and the act of making the marks, with whatever motive and design which sits behind it? In the open discussion before the applause at the end, Oliver Fuke – the gallery manager – addressed the first by mentioning Alexandre Astruc’s concept of the caméra-stylo; the idea that directors could use their cameras like a pen and cinema could be a kind of writing. It is easy to imagine how Astruc might have arrived at the analogy: he was both a director and a critical writer about film.

Though often illuminating, comparisons between disciplines – film, writing and drawing in this case – tend to get off the ground by generalising about the constituent parts. Like a hot air balloon, we’ve undoubtedly thrown some important things out as ballast, but we wouldn’t have this usefully elevated perspective if we hadn’t.

Comparing drawing to writing has a tendency to pull both back to the innovations in writing technology and print reproduction around the European Renaissance; the point in history, Maltby suggested in the discussion, when we started to think of the default substrate of drawing and writing as being paper or card. As Jones himself pointed out in both his review and another of the British Museum’s Drawing in Silver and Gold exhibition, the technologies have actually always been more plural than that. His own piece in mind, Maltby mentions the mark-making involved in the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, the Chauvet caves in France, or more recently, the stamping and yomping involved in Richard Long’s work.

Having addressed the tool and support, this leaves the act itself. Around 38 minutes in to the recording, Alaluuasua hands Professor Anita Taylor, the Director of the Prize, a marked-up transcript of an interview Taylor gave the British Library’s Artists’ Lives series, and asks her to read it out. Like Maltby, Alaluusua considers her work to be about drawing, and balances the film work with more traditional pieces on paper; Taylor’s definition was instructive for her.

Professor Anita Taylor, Elena Hill, Sean Maltby, Elisa Alaluusua

Professor Anita Taylor, Elena Hill, Sean Maltby, Elisa Alaluusua


Except it isn’t really a definition at all; it interprets, suggests, and invites contradiction and addition. Taylor argues that drawing is something that articulates a surface and a space, involving a bare ground and a residue moved across it, which can just as much be the light on the surfaces of Alaluusua’s piece as the rake on the surfaces of Maltby’s.

‘I like the word dragan’, Taylor says, ‘which is about dragging something’. For her, this Old Saxon term ‘is at the root of drawing’ as much as the Renaissance Italianate ‘disegno’, which the National Gallery call ‘the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design’. The physicality – the action of moving from one point to another – is at least as important to her as the planning behind it. But isn’t the same true of the study of the origin of words? Isn’t etymology also a kind of steady, rolling motion through the unknowable number of people who’ve used a word like ‘drawing’, and off into an equally unknowable future?

Luke McCreadie: Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air

16 Sep

In the Piazza outside the front of the British Library on the Euston Road, there’s a large monumental sculpture of a naked Isaac Newton, sat down, bent double with a pair of compasses in his hand. It’s Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s version of a watercolour which William Blake made almost exactly 200 years earlier, and the Isaac Newton Institute describe it as  ‘inspired by the union between two British geniuses, both representing nature, poetry, art, and architecture.’ For others it’s an attack on Newton’s  neglect of visionary, poetic or religious thinking in favour of scientific rationality. The art historians at Tate, for example, link it to a poem Blake wrote in a letter to his patron, Thomas Butts:

May God us keep

From single vision and Newton’s sleep.

Is Newton’s focus on his compasses blinding him to the iridescent rocks around him in Blake’s version, or the geometric patterns in Paolozzi’s? Is Paolozzi – who had designs for the library’s gates turned down – misreading Blake, or using him to make an arch comment on the organisational ambitions of a library?

In 1997, the year the sculpture was unveiled by Cherie Blair, Robert Wyatt released his album Shleep. Wyatt – who has a face like the Ancient of Days, but a gentle, reedy, boyish singing voice more appropriate to one of the figures from Songs of Innocence – is in the visionary, anti-rationalistic and slightly unhinged English tradition of Blake, just as Luke McCreadie is in the visionary, anti-rationalistic and slightly unhinged tradition of Wyatt. McCreadie’s current exhibition in the Jerwood Project Space is titled ‘Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air’, after a line from Shleep’s ‘Free Will and Testament’; the switching of ‘Last’ for ‘Free’ in the title hints at an eagerness for meanings to proliferate, rather than to settle down into anything like a single vision. For Wyatt, this means writing lines like ‘what kind of spider understands arachnophobia?’. For McCreadie it means making a work like Mobile (2015), a pattern of primary-coloured arrows, crosses and circlings which look like the symbols in software, made quasi-hand-drawn to suggest the gestures of a live hand: quite literally, this is a system of floating signifiers.

Project Space

Luke McCreadie, ‘Plan for Untitled (mobile)’, 2015. Courtesy the artist.


Mobile is a riff both on Wyatt and on Alexander Calder, and a part of an interest in the idea of being in a tradition which runs through the whole show. There are five unglazed black ceramic shelves on the wall, each named after the author of the replica work which sits on it. Around each replica there’s an alphabet soup of letters on sticks; like either the arms of a typewriter, or the shaft of the kind of brand used to mark cattle in cowboy films. Though the letters are a cacophonous mess, the shelves are one symbol of order, and their contents another: each holds a canonical work, a landmark for navigating art history. There’s a Clarice Shelf, with a piece by the ceramicist Clarice Cliff, a Kazimir and Constantin Shelf with a Malevich and Brancusi’s Endless Column, and an Ernő Shelf with Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. In each case McCreadie’s titling puts us on first-name terms, reflecting the fact that these are versions of bigger works reimagined on a much more intimate scale. The Marcel Shelf – replete with a miniature copy of the famous Fountain – is of particular note given Duchamp’s training as an archivist.

McCreadie is interested in ‘the stuff that skirts between mythology and empiricism as something powerful and important that we increasingly stand to lose, in terms of the stories that we tell each other, because our imaginations are being somehow curtailed’. So he builds up a rich imaginative mythography  behind his work, in which Duchamp – with Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois – is the third part of a portmanteaued, composite character called Marcel Callaille, who seeks out a character called Thomas Eade to congratulate him on his crumbling, Borgesian library in Toxteth, Devon. Eade grew out of McCreadie’s commission last year as part of the Warwick Stafford Fellowship in Newcastle. The press release for that exhibition quoted a text he supposedly wrote called The Ruins of the Bibliotheca Universalis (1923):

The information between the books is the missing link, the order and categorisation of books is not irrelevant and should be based on how closely the information on the last page of one book leads on to the information on the first page of the next. A string of connected events as it were, piled in chaos and eventually turning the earth off its axis.

There is no Toxteth in Devon, and Eade’s dates of birth and death change within the same press release. He’s an archivist who stands for the impossibility of the accurate recording of history; the fact that the order of any archival catalogue is a kind of fiction. McCreadie first imagined him while working in an idiosyncratically organised archive at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Revelling in the confusion of objects, he picked out a tiny blown-glass dolphin from Syria (c.400 AD) and a painted fragment of pottery from 13th-century Iran, and gave them lives: in the film Fragment Dolphin (2014), they went on a road trip, falling in and out of love. Actually, they were masks, worn by McCreadie and his wife Alice, and the format – 8mm film – was the same that his grandfather had used to make family films in Africa. (There’s a sense of the family as a living, continuing archive here: McCreadie’s baby daughter apparently throws her father’s books out on the floor, creating precisely the kind of unexpected connections he references in his work.)


Luke McCreadie, ‘Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air’ still, 2015. Courtesy the artist.


The film element of McCreadie’s Jerwood Project Space show – called Bibliothèque Sauvage – picks up some of the same threads: a salt-dough commemorative blue plaque to Thomas Eade features, and there are characters with masks, this time made of vinyl LP sleeves, communicating through a kind of pictorial version of music. The latter are outgrowths of McCreadie’s twin preoccupations with the disappearance of language, and a very slow form of apocalypse; a process so slow and unlike those in Hollywood film – or even images by Blake – as to be imperceptible, but an apocalypse nevertheless.

For McCreadie, Blake’s Newton is an image of the difference between ‘intuition’ and ‘planning and writing and a sort of textual understanding’: ‘Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air’ is about something like what Blake’s contemporary John Keats called negative capability, a capacity for ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. So to give you a succinct conclusion would be rather to miss the point.

Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air is in the Jerwood Project Space until 12 December 2015.

‘I seem very mixed up today’: notes on three drawings

16 Sep

by Tom Overton


At the bottom right-hand corner of Sue England’s entry to the Jerwood Drawing Prize, a line of pencilled text reads ‘I am sorry to be like this…I seem very mixed up today.’ The words – almost imperceptible when you look at a reproduction –  are at the densest part of the drawing, looped around and woven into the texture of the irregular grid which covers the centre of the paper. A thicker line runs around the overall shape; because it’s just inside its margins, it doesn’t quite define the edges. The warp and weft of the resulting grid seem to billow out above it, suggesting a sense of depth, or of something contained. It looks like a brain seen in profile through an MRI scanner, facing to the right, the cerebellum slightly lower on the left; perhaps the thicker line is an artery.

The title – The Productivity of Absence (Hairnet) – nearly, but not quite proves this initial impression wrong. The hairnet is the one worn by England’s mother every night, keeping what I imagine to be a neat perm in place: a comforting, regular routine among the slippages, gaps and disappearances of dementia. Other lines are variations on ‘I went for my pension now I can’t find my money’; ‘please help me’ turns up a few times. When England describes the net as ‘holding in her anxieties, while the connections unwind’; the pronoun is meant for her mother, but it can’t but stand for the artist too. And for most of the people looking at the drawing – the Alzheimer’s Society estimate that one in three people in the UK will suffer from dementia.

The lines that gently suggest the owner’s sadness and fear at people losing patience with her are almost unbearable, precisely because of their involvement in such a delicate structure. But when England calls it the ‘the gradual unravelling of a mind and life’, and metaphorically weaves these threads back into family history in old, cotton-weaving industrial Lancashire, there seems to be some kind of consolation in the ‘Northern work ethic’ she talks about inheriting. It’s everywhere in the understated meticulousness of this drawing.

702 England

Sue England, ‘The Productivity of Absence’, 2015.



Emma Douglas’s Cato Marble Graffiti (2014/15) is a rectangle of marble, propped landscape-format between the floor and the wall, as though it hasn’t been hung yet. Like England’s piece it doesn’t reproduce very well, but as the name suggests, it’s covered in graffiti. On seeing the name Cato – I knew he was a Latin poet, but Wikipedia says grammarian too – the Roman numerals, and the arrowed love-heart, I started guessing. Was it a wry comment linking drawing to the hubris of toilet-door or school desk graffitists, underlined by the classicising touch of the material. Now this will last, I thought  it might be saying, deliberately telescoping millennia of history by anachronistically scratching a mobile phone number next to Cato’s name. (I remembered, at this point, a story about a mausoleum commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi complete with grave-goods for a contemporary Pharaoh; there was apparently a marble mobile phone in there.)

Just look at the solidity of the marble; it was too weighty to be mounted on the wall alongside those other, flimsier works. But even then, just when such a gesture might seem a little pompous and self-satisfied, it might refer over to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, with its confidence that it’s the well-constructed declaration of love which will endure, not the expensive material.

Douglas’s statement in the catalogue reassured me at first, explaining her interest ‘in the graffiti you see carved into park benches […] I always fantasise about the lives of people who put it there.’ Then, doing this a little in the space of the line breaks, I read that the hubris had actually been mine. I’d not looked carefully enough at ‘25.12.1988 – 14.12.2010′, in Roman and Arabic numerals:

When my son, Cato, died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, we were building a kitchen for him. This piece of marble was cut out to make room for the stove.

The marks on the marble are part of his story, my graffiti about him.

77 Douglas

Emma Douglas, ‘Cato marble graffiti’, 2014/5.



I don’t think I misinterpreted Lee John Phillips’ The Shed Project so much as interpret it in the light of Douglas and England’s pieces. For reasons that will become clear it seems important to be as accurate about the materials used as possible: an A4 Moleskine-type black-covered, cream, plain-papered notebook, and what I imagine to be a series of very fine-tipped pens, running out of ink in succession of each other. With these materials, Phillips has begun a drawn, numbered inventory of his late grandfather’s tool shed, piece by piece, including multiples: there are page upon page of washers, nuts and bolts; some of the pliers and compasses look traced onto the paper. This is only volume 1; he’s completed 4,000 of an estimated 80,000. Thickness and texture are suggested with hatching or, occasionally, an asterisk indicating an unusual material; they have a playfulness and sense of eccentricity which means that, despite the accuracy of the drawings, they look closer to a very precisely executed cartoon than a Haynes manual or set of assembly instructions. Phillips calls it ‘an exercise of discipline’ and ‘a record of my own cultural and industrial heritage, reflecting on a social ethos I feel is being sadly eroded.’ The effect is of an outline of his grandfather: a careful, exacting presence suggested through the surfaces of things he touched and arranged.

2152 Phillips

Lee John Phillips, ‘The Shed Project: Volume 1’, 2014/5

The Jerwood Drawing Prize is open until the 25th of October.

Interview with Jasleen Kaur

25 Aug

Jasleen Kaur

Jasleen Kaur

Elinor Morgan: It seems like your work is a meeting of categories of making and materials as well as locations and cultures.

Jasleen Kaur: I’ve never thought of it in that way but I do think of myself as a cobbler. I pull together unlearned and culturally acquired knowledge in my work. When I was training as a jeweller at the Glasgow School of Art I had quite a particular way of making; I’m not very precise. I was brought up in a very religious Sikh family in Glasgow and although my work is not hugely autobiographical it is about meeting points. 

EM: Does this work represent that cobbling nature?

JK: My dad owns a hardware shop and I use a lot of found objects. The work I have made for the Jerwood Makers Open came from those marbled buckets you get outside hardware shops. I wanted to take the revered material of marble and shift it into a less valuable material. The people depicted shift too, from being Lords or Gods, those traditionally shown in Western portrait busts and Indian religious sculptures, to being three men or women.

EM: But they aren’t women…

JK: No, but I don’t see that as important, especially because I hope the project isn’t finished so I may add women in. There’s a very specific reason why I chose to show these three men. First first is my great granddad who moved from Punjab to Glasgow in the 1950s, the first in my family to come and make that cultural shift. When he left the Punjab he had a Turban and a beard and in the few photos we have of him in his early days in the UK he wears a flat cap and a moustache. He was keen to assimilate and because he didn’t have a community around him until later. He was a key member of the Sikh community in Glasgow; he used to borrow Bollywood films from his friends in Leicester to play in the cinema after temple on Sunday. 

Then Edward Said is in the middle. When I came across his writing at the Glasgow School of Art it gave me a real sense of place as a practitioner. I realised that people were writing about the ideas that I was thinking about and making about. The last is Lord Robert Napier. His great grandfather fought in two Anglo-Sikh wars in the time of the British Raj and there’s a big statue of him outside of the Royal College of Art. The history of British-Indian relations is so complex and so fascinating. 

I contacted the current Lord Robert Napier when I was studying at the RCA. I wanted to tie a turban on his head as a visual marker of where we are now. He said yes, so I took my dad as the turban tier to Wiltshire and we made a portrait. It feels like the three busts represent a starting point, a mid-point – or sense of place – and a sense of how I am working as an artist now to shape the dialogue. 

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

EM: Busts like this might normally be made from marble. Here they are made from marbled plastic. Beyond this pun, why did you decide to make bust portraits in this rather Western, classical style?

JK: I am very interested in the typologies of sculpture and it’s role. In the European tradition, to make a marble bust is to revere someone through a laborious material process to the point where the material inhabits its own monumental sphere and cannot be touched. I have been thinking about equivalents in Indian sculpture, which depicts Gods and Goddesses and Buddha in this way.  

People bathe them in milk and feed them fruits and in some situations people even put them to bed at night and wake them up in the morning. This humanises the statues by making them functioning objects in daily routines. The busts I have made signify meeting points between these opposing traditions and, of course, they play with the marble/plastic materials. 

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

EM: You applied to the Jerwood Makers Open; do you think of yourself as a maker?

JK: I make things that can operate in a number of contexts. For the piece ‘Chai Tea Stall’, in 2010, for example, I made a travelling tea stall with small clay cups. In the gallery it was an artwork by Jasleen the artist, but in a community centre or family home it was just Jasleen making tea. If something functions in a number of contexts then I think it works. That’s a litmus test for me. I am not interested in hierarchies between art and craft or maker and artist. For me it’s about the maker’s intentions. To do something artfully is to give it time and care.

EM: What have you gained from your involvement in the Makers Open?

JK: It has been different for each of the five of us. I applied to shift my practice away from relying on found objects, so that while my work would still be informed by the qualities of found objects I would have more independence and agency. It’s been a chance to produce something in completely different materials with a completely different aesthetic because the project took me out of a comfort zone. 

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

14 Aug

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen


Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen
Recorded at Jerwood Space, London
10 June 2015
Listen here.

Interview with Studio Silo

30 Jul

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu


Your work appears to start with an interest in subverting and confounding expectations of materials.
We start with how to challenge the use and perceptions of materials. It is very difficult not to have a preconception of how something will look when completed but we try to be as open as possible. We generally approach things in a naïve way and learn through making.

For us it is really important that the making is evident in the final piece. So, for example, when we made glass pieces with fabric moulds it was very important to us that the stitches and texture of the textiles that had formed the vessels were visible in the final objects.

Tell me a bit about the process of making and how these works came about.
We work with material, process and basic physical principles. Our research involves reading, playing with materials and watching YouTube tutorials. We were both interested in rotor moulding, a method used to make large, hollow plastic objects, tanks for example, or plastic chairs.

What is rotor moulding?
1. It is a two – or more – part mould.
2. You put powdered plastic inside, not to fill the mould, just a little.
3. Then it rotates and is heated and the plastic gets distributed and sticks to the mould.
4. When it cools you have a shiny object that pops out the mould.

It is a cheap process to use for small scale production. It was invented by Swiss Chocolate makers and is used to make Easter Eggs.

I often think about where materials come from but don’t always consider the way that processes of making develop.
All technology has a route; often it is military. Those routes are part of our research. In this instance we were looking at Liquid Mirror Zenith Telescopes, which are a cheaper alternative to conventional telescopes which use glass or polished metal as a mirror. Liquid mirror telescopes are spinning discs of liquid, low-melt alloy, often mercury. When spun the mercury makes a perfect parabola shape. You then put a lens on top and can see things that are directly above the liquid. We realised that this was rotational moulding but only on one axis.

In that instance the liquid is in continual motion; perfectly stable but never set.
Exactly, and we started looking into this and thinking about how Isaac Newton had described inertia with a theory now called ‘Newton’s Bucket’. He hung a bucket of water on a rope, twisted the rope and let the bucket spin. He described how the water remains flat at first but after a while the bucket communicates the movement to the water and the water adopts a parabola shape.

We started to experiment with rota moulding aluminium but we realised that it did not convey the movement in the making process so we started to use acrylic reinforced gypsum plaster (or Jesmonite) which enabled us to use colour to describe the motion. We poured liquid Plaster of Paris with acrylic hardener into a hemisphere shape and rotated it. We used different colours to describe the motion, for example, in the green piece, the middle part doesn’t move as much as the outer part which communicates something of the inertia principle. The bowl starts turning and the liquid has to catch up so you get a dynamic S-shaped curve.

How do you keep the colours separate?
There is an additive in the material that ensures they don’t blend. When we started with plaster this wasn’t the case. This material is much harder and the colours stay clear and clean. We polish the bowls to make them more vibrant.

Are these functional objects? What do you imagine people will use them for?
We see them in the applied arts area so you would not eat from them but they are decorative pieces to be used in people’s homes. They’re not high functional and they’re not high art. We often work in series and these pieces are between a multiple and a one-off.

Silo Studio, Newton's Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca


The vessels sit on three-legged metal stools that reference the kitchen stool. Tell me a bit about the display of the work.
The display of our work is important to us. This is something we think should be well considered as it has a strong impact on how the pieces are perceived. Our glass blower made the glass stands so that you can see the complete object and our design studio logo on the base. The metal spinner who made the moulds for the bowls made the tops of the plinths for us and we selected the grey to match the tone of the gallery.

Do you share all of your processes in an open source way?
We don’t want people to copy what we are doing but we want to excite people to explore some of these processes and materials. In fact, that is why we avoid brand names like Jesmonite. It is important to us to use more scientific terms that better describe the materials as you can’t get branded materials across the world and we want to encourage others to make.

We encourage openness in our practice and make videos that communicate how our work is made. These act as a visual aid that helps us to communicate more quickly but also describe the tone and pace of the studio. The videos are shorthand but we also run workshops to teach people some of our methods.

Meeting the Makers

15 Jul

I am not a maker. Like others my understanding of materials is aesthetic: formed by haptic, physical and sensorial experience that has developed into embedded memories of objects and surfaces. My knowledge of making is vicarious, learned through watching, reading and listening. Thinking about how materials are formed fills me with the same feeling I had during most maths and physics lessons in secondary school: a kind of detached wonder that makes my brain float and my body distant. I imagine procedures that probably could not happen, but without any attempt or desire to make them a reality. Sites of industry are for me, as for many others, mysterious places, disconnected from a present where surfaces are coated, veneered and anodised.

Until recently I sat next to artist Ruth Claxton for 2 days every week at Eastside Projects. For me and many of Birmingham’s younger artists Ruth is a font of making knowledge. She is someone who has learnt partly through trials in her practice and partly through more formal training previously available in the form of City & Guilds courses. This type of knowledge, embodied and learnt through activity, is very different to mine. I could ask Ruth questions like: what actually is shellac? And which metals can you weld together? Of course Ruth doesn’t know everything but she has routes to finding out most things. Along with Architects Alessandro and Mike Dring and musician and print maker Sean O’Keeffe, Ruth is planning Birmingham Production Space, a national site for making, both digital and analogue.

I inhale parts of the research undertaken by the artists I work with and thus have a rock-pool-like picture of materials and processes, with areas of shallow and slightly deeper understanding. Recently I have spoken extensively about casting, a process that endlessly fascinates all sorts of practitioners and which (like developing photographs) uses a mesmerising process of reversal. Casting formed the basis of one of the most enchanting artist talks I have encountered, given by artist Florian Roithmayr at the brilliant production site Grymsdkye Farm in August 2014.

Conversations with artists Marie Toseland and James Parkinson have triggered much of my recent thinking on casting. Both are currently showing cast works (in ceramic and glass and plaster respectively), in a group show I curated at The Sunday Painter, Peckham. For Marie casting is an intimate, erotic process wherein the original or container is suffocated by the substance filling it and eventually replicating it; whereas for James it is a system of loops and references through which he can explore the space between the actual and the virtual to look at notions of representation, embodiment and provenance.

I often think about the origins of, and journeys undertaken by, matter. The recent trend in tracing the lives of materials and objects (think Jane Bennett, Maurizio Boscagli, Mark Miodownik, OOO) has perhaps refreshed my interest in this, which began when I was an undergraduate student in social anthropology. I think too about how the politics of materials is formed by processes of extraction and the environmental and human costs incurred. I wonder if we will come up with a way of manufacturing some of the rare minerals that we currently depend on for our well-loved smart phones and tablets, whether we can produce them in a laboratory as we are now able to produce diamonds, or whether this will come with its own substantial problems. The V&A’s current show, What is Luxury, poses many interesting questions around the production of value through the employment of time, skills and expertise and rare materials.

At a recent conference on production, Fran Edgerley, a member of Assemble, proposed that production is an opportunity for people to be involved in productive activity, and noted the phenomenon of social prescription whereby GPs prescribe activity to aid all sorts of issues including depression and addiction. This reminds me of the meaningful activity utilised in the field of Occupational Therapy and brings me to an internal debate I have been having about the contemporary push for mindfulness and wellbeing. With the Conservative party’s Budget having been announced only 2 days ago, the idea that those who do not engage in normative, healthy, happy working lives are not of value or interest to society is fresh in my mind and I feel increasing scepticism seeping into my understanding of Britain’s new-found ‘understanding’ of mental health issues.

From this position of commissioning and curating as a way of questioning and absorbing knowledge (and let’s not forget that writing and curating are a processes of making and shaping material too) I find myself newly part of a group of people looking after a collection at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which is comprised in part by twentieth century ceramics and a significant collection of contemporary jewellery. As such I have begun to swat up on studio ceramics practice and to learn about the field of contemporary jewellery, which I have to say is more interesting and political than I previously imagined (my limiting preconceptions showing).

These are the references that form my thoughts on Friday 10 July as I travel to London to see the Jerwood Makers Open 2015 and meet some of its makers the morning after it opened. The posts that follow will reflect on some of the threads initiated above.

a molecular vernacular

7 Jul

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.


1. Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page wrote Sadie Plant in Zeros and Ones, aligning the infinitely tangled webs of the internet with the infinitely tangled webs of language. In the liquid flow of the data stream, words become isolated fragments estranged from an organizing central narrative. The channels of the computerized network are a-temporal. Against time (as we know it), not in any way with it. To read on and with the screen is to trust your body, and all of its unpredictable eruptions, over the packaged and bound linear narrative. When the machine hums, your body hums too, and so does language. Brains… are not unified entities but hives or swarms of elements, interconnected multiplicities, packet-switching systems of enormous complexity, which have no centralized government (Plant, 1997).


2. In Georgie Grace’s video The machine is almost pure magic, swarms of appropriated linguistic fragments combine in a visual narration of aural silence. There is no spoken voice to guide us, only buzzing phonetic hives spelled out in neon text on screen: it is a script of unfinished sentences, leading us to an unknown, but tempting us somewhere. Before she writes, the artist listens and transcribes, scribbling down verbal events (scientific lectures or techno-talks, for example) in the contemporaneous moment of their speaking. It is the live copied (or forgotten), then re-ordered. Mediated by her tinkering hand. The individual voice becomes drowned out and buried by the process (performance) of transcription, so that the original author disappears in the artist’s edit, and she replaces him: I’m interested in the experience of reading and it wouldn’t be a reading experience if it were a listening experience, so how reading is mediated on screen is something that I am concerned with: do I remember things in the same way? Am I able to organise things in my mind when I have multiple tabs and screens open? (Georgie Grace, 2015, 15:03 PM).


3. Georgie harnesses Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of uncreative writing (How do you determine who owns a piece of writing? 14:44 PM) to craft and model a script of stolen lines and lecturing rhetoric, re-modelled as a text of questioning and sensorial combat. Of displacement and replacement. The script is not linear or narrative-driven, but it does build, unfold in some sort of sequence of sense. Sentences meet and merge, then break with the artifice. Fracture with their cut-up arrangement. Georgie’s syntactical collections embody a kind of liquid flow, and excess, as they travel and accrete in multiple directions. Deriving from the transcription-research, the script contains unexpected overlaps: although the content of each speech is different, the tone and language is transferrable. Like a download. Or a copy and paste. There are jumps in it so it is not completely smooth but at the same time it has a flow so you can almost make sense of it. The appropriating impulse of the ‘uncreative’ writer mirrors (as in screen) the immaterial and uncensored walls of the digital network, where authorship and ownership become tangled in the hyperlinked blur.


4. The machine is almost pure magic reads like an enumerative instructive manual, an assembly of texts to compute and join together. A text-based narration, it nevertheless ‘speaks’ a language of promotion, profession, aspiration, and work, in ghostly emerald city intonations: ‘You have an extremely powerful and very, very flexible device / you can use it to influence people / you can use it to get a better job / you can use it to increase your prosperity’. It feels as planned and formulated as the digital system it describes, as it performs the language of impenetrable science in creepy imperatives. An ambiguous order to trust and repeat. Real science and fictional science, as Georgie said. When reading/watching, Georgie’s friend declared whatever it is I’m buying one! She thought it was selling her something, a sort of phantom product. As writer and artist, Georgie has constructed a text in which form and content merge and speak: the transcribed language of the lecture is shuffled anew by the artist so that it inhabits, in its fragmentary list-like form, the syntax of the machine. Phrases to click, estranged from a coherent centre. ‘you can put a command in a box,’ the artist writes in place of the anonymous machine of artificial intelligence, flowing into ‘and the box sends out a high frequency signal/ it shoots out a beam of light’.


5. Georgie’s video operates as a moving image, linked by cut-and-pasted stills (overlaid with cut-and-pasted language). Aesthetically, it embodies the ‘possibly analogue / possibly digital’ epithet in the script, used to describe the merging of corporeal and technological in a quasi-fictional machine, but equally an apt describer of Georgie’s film-making. Archive photographs of uninhabited sixties interiors are chopped into a mix of rippling animations and magnified grey materials. I was drawn to the idea of what reality is made of in its particles, pixels and half-tones – a focalized, immaterial materiality, in which the granular substance of the abstract background is not so far removed from the granular photographs shuffled in between. The images are filed and rearranged, akin to the ease of digital administration: it feels like a computational aesthetic of uploading and downloading, referring to the ways computers can sort images and understand them. File them irrespective of the date in which they were made. Nearly all of the images in the film document empty spaces, their textures mediated, virtual and digital, so that the past image (which also represents the epoch of cybernetic serendipity in art and technology) is relocated as an image of futurity. Of ‘cosmic significance’, or so says the script. And if the image is reduced to the atomic and molecular, so is the language. The artist manipulates linguistic material in the same way as a nanotechnologist, combing through the detritus of speech to refocus and reveal a fiction of her own.


6. From the form to the content. What does the posthuman machine that Georgie is transcribing, tracking and fictionalizing do? In Sadie’s silver smooth text, she wrote of a brain that ‘is body, extending even to the fingertips, through all the thinking, pulsing, fluctuating chemistries, and virtually connected with the matters of other bodies, clothes, keyboards, traffic flows, city streets and data streams’. In Georgie’s artwork, she extends this union further, writing a machine of mind-powered prosthetics, so that brain and body are computerized as one infinite and intelligent object. As the fragments of script direct us: ‘we’ll become machines that act like humans / technology and humanity are going to be converging / we’re going ethereal / like a snake shedding its skin.’ And in The machine is almost pure magic, the fiction of the immortal machine that flows and evolves from imagination to object over the course of the script, is communicated via Georgie’s writing: shedding the excess skin of language, she uncovers scales, molecules and atoms – which will eventually stick together again, to make another fiction new.


The machine is almost pure magic by Georgie Grace as commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

diary-writing the membrane

18 Jun

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.


I am sitting in a corner of the gallery. My legs that are encased in light grey jeans are stretched out to make a line that is then extended by the dark grey slate tiles and from these, the dark grey object. An editor of an art magazine is taking notes when I arrive, and admires how the floor and sculpture are tonally working in tandem. He doesn’t know that soon my limbs (and language) will become part of the fixture, too.


Typing in this floor position, I am the figurative intruder, filling out the institutional void, and embodying it with material substance. My writing body feels exposed – even though he has now left – as my fingers scuttle across the keys and singular words emerge, in black, on the fake white page. The object stays rooted to the floor (like a tree-trunk, and like my bum) but its lines move: its surface pattern stages action and performance, a nod to the busy bodies that made it. I imagine a swarm of hands clutching pencils and rulers, slinking down the vertical surface and getting physically close to it. This grey and green sheet of two-dimensional surface, and patternised resistance, is a singular monolithic disguise for background teamwork.


KB. I told them not to worry too much, not to stress over every mark, which gave a lot more rhythm to the drawing. I wouldn’t stand there watching but I would change people around every ten or twenty lines, to give it a bit more texture.


I am writing a diary out of, through and on the work, inscribing and annotating in ad-hoc fashion, just like the workers who drew onto it. We’re both sensing the material; feeling it as we go. The first time I saw the work I couldn’t stop moving about the room, making my own foot-stepped lines, to view and concentrate on it from different angles, and now I’m making different kind of lines, moving trapeze-like across the keyboard. With my eyes tied to the work and the words, it’s a balancing act of looking, reading and writing.


I am visible but veiled at the same time. Velum is a curved sculpture that carves the space in two, protecting my private from the outside public. This artificial wall separates the exterior from the interior, the skin from the membrane. The title of the work Velum shifts in meaning in the same way as its quivering string-bound aesthetic moves and shakes (it looks like it could be plucked like a violin). Incurring rhythm and noise. I wonder what it would be like to pluck language, its phonemes spiralling from a linear system.


Velum is veil; it is bodily tissue; it is muscle: it is paper. Never one, or the other, but a frenetic experience of them all. From the reference to the inference to the metaphor. I start to wonder that the work is much more corporeal than it first appears, alluding to a phantom body, or perhaps the gallery intruder herself.


KB. I like words and titles that have double meanings and the potential of that: it forces the viewer to inspect the work more closely: then you can see it is really made out of thin MDF and is not actually calfskin vellum at all.


Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.


I entered this veiled space from behind (from backstage), its naked construction exposing itself before the main event. This backwards path made me feel curious, unknowing, vulnerable and visible: it is a trick to surprise us. I had to question what it even was to start with, intuit its material substance: is it rope; is it collage; is it curtain… is it flesh?


KB. It feels more three-dimensional here because of how you approach it, which is important, as it allows the audience to move around the work and explore it.


Velum is a serpentine wooden structure that bends, concave, like a river. It is huge, nearly as high as the ceiling at one end, before decreasing with the curve to a smooth horizontal edge lower than its starting point. This wooden room divider is about twenty centimetres thick, as in three-dimensional, but it performs like a piece of paper – although is in no way flat. Velum contains, and then exposes, a two-dimensional surface that urges you, I, anyone, to touch it. Feel it. Climb all over it and make your own mark with dirty thumb-prints. Doing the wrong thing. I wonder at Velum’s precarious existence, a solid but also ephemeral object.


KB. It’s really robust even though the surface is really delicate. It’s odd that I don’t feel that precious about it; maybe I just got rid of that, and let go, when I knew other people were touching it, smudging it, drawing on it.


Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.


It is a stage for drawing two-dimensional light green vertical lines, in all kinds of thicknesses and angles and wayward ripples, hidden amidst the discipline. From grey to green to black to yellow. From a thread to a void. The line is not a homogenous mark, however clean and simple it appears. Accidents happen on this stage. People forget their lines. They become interrupted or change direction, if only by a degree. In this wall of self-imposed excess and regularity – a formula, essentially – it is easy to get lost. It is easy to find pleasure in the tidal marks and constellations that happen and move in and around the order. I find myself desiring the unruly (even if ‘ruled’) lines, the scars that stray from the formula of linear inscription.


Velum makes contact with the viewer, and talks to her: asks her what it means to look.


KB. It was quite important to me that you could become immersed in the drawing: that it’s the only thing you can see.


As it screens out the background faces to only let in background noise, Velum constructs a curiously intimate space for writing, an invitation for a body to inhabit. Once the man leaves, for the most of the day I am the only body in the room, this busy screen of corporeal gesture and willed physicality (it takes muscular effort to draw these lines) inviting wild and automated acts of typing. If writing is meant to be a private experience in which you get to know oneself, in this walled room, I am partly private and partly public. I am intimately public.


KB. The work surrounds you: it gives you the privacy you need, to look.


To write in and with Velum is to combine acts of seeing, with acts of desire and language, in the middle of a public space. Constantly navigating what it means to be not just a body, but also a writing body, in a room. On the edges of visibility, flirting with risk. I thought I would feel self-aware but Velum, in its curved wing-like hold, is cradling: it understands what it means to write, and what writing needs. What this space needs. I look at it from a side-ways angle, and wonder if it is also a giant scroll, in a constant process of unfolding. Its marks could be words, its linear gestures an ambiguous and personal language.



This diary-like text was formed from a conversation with Kelly Best, and notes made in front of the artwork at Jerwood Space, 15 June 2015. An in-conversation with Kelly, Georgie Grace and the editor and critic, Oliver Basciano, happened later in the day, incidentally also in front of Velum.


Velum was commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

something like life-writing

11 Jun

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015 Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca


In the hour that we’re together, the road that forms Tower Bridge stands firm. Little boats motor underneath it. Red buses drive across it. It does not break, this moment in history. But as we talk and get distracted, the edges of this fin-de-siécle monument get fuzzy. The conversation has the capacity to re-write timelines (seen in the towering concrete phallus) with personal affect, and accident.


While the river pushes on. (It was the present moment, or so says Virginia W.)


Or so quotes Alice May Williams: I was really aware that it is quite strange recording someone’s voice, in that it immediately brings them into the present, but a present that has already passed. It keeps happening in Orlando, as Woolf keeps referring to the fact that it was the present moment and then it’s gone. It hits you on the head.


I’m asking Alice questions, just like Ken does of Jessie (aka Great-Great Grandma) in her audio work An Unreliable Witness. Jessie answered back: she wouldn’t let herself get pinned down by the male biographer of dates and chronology, as she fought the masculine recorder with voice itself. It is a voice of shuffling ambiguity, as her Medusa laughs and muddy verbal gestures constantly undermine what he wants her to tell him.


Alice has clearly inherited her GGG’s oral rebelliousness, as she harnesses women’s talk as a strategy of communality and temporal disruption. We listen in on a female cacophony: voices murmuring in unison, Alice calls it, counteracting and contradicting that person (Ken? Myself?) clutching a microphone, running a script. I was definitely aware when talking to my family members that I did not want to play that directive role, of trying to get them to talk about what I thought I wanted them to tell me, because it is through the tangents where you really uncover the stuff the person being interviewed wants to talk about. In An Unreliable Witness – a fiction drawn from a document – the everyday tangents stall coherent narrative and logic, as space shifts from the cleanliness of Woolf’s Kew to the 1871 dirty streets of Battersea. Fiction and biography are pretty much interchangeable in Alice’s audio object, while time slides and text slides in her composite writing of appropriated verbatim and quotation.


Oral history probes and provokes the past, while constructing an edited narrative (however loose) in and out of the present. It is a fiction of potential, as it fills in the neglected gaps of women’s histories – from the domestic to the dangerous to the near deadly. Suzanne Lacy broadcast similar conversations on live TV for The Crystal Quilt, in which a Susan Stone composition of seventy-five women talking about ageing played in the background. Text and subtext murmuring in unison.


As a positive reconstructive method, oral history seeks to make women authors of their own past, but what about the ghostly recorder or tinkering transcriber? What if he misses out her pause, or forgets her laugh? The gesture can only ruin him if he remembers it, or respects it, in language. In An Unreliable Witness, the artist’s Great-Great Grandma rejects the interviewer’s presence, and Alice steps in, turning Jessie’s anti-linear narrative into a revised construct of converging generations and multiple voices. All girls together. She is not so much speaking in place of the original speaker, as using the equipment of past and present speaking, to speak for her. And with her.


The writer Chloé Griffin assumed a similar responsibility for a life in her oral history of the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, whose dark-humour-heavy, diary-fictions shadowed her dark experiences before becoming another victim of AIDs in November 1989. Cookie’s life has always been prefaced by her death. It is her Internet entry, her presence, but an oral history can seek to do more. It can seek to embody and imagine, beyond the tragic ‘ending’.


In Edgewise, Griffin tacks together the voices of friends and lovers that knew her (artists and writers, mainly) in a polyvocal text of shifting temporal patterns. Memories and recollections accrete; extend; contradict. Griffin’s oral history is rendered as a continuous conversation, in spite of the scattered execution of the interviews over eight years, and the mutating time and place of the narratives. We hear her love Sharon Niesp retelling the dramaturgy of their relationship (‘I’d disappear for a while. We didn’t have fight fights every day like neurotic couples do. I would just disappear’), and later Gary Indiana talks of downtown New York happenings, starring Cookie:

‘I took a lot of pictures of Cookie in drag. Kathy Acker and I were asked at one point to do a performance at the Mudd club where we would project slides of our former boyfriends and read letters to them that we had written. I had a lot of letters I had written to boyfriends, but I didn’t have that many pictures of them, so I called Cookie up and said, “Would you like to pose as several of my former boyfriends?” We went to William Coupson’s studio, and she had two costumes. One was kind of manly – Playboy, kind of a smoking jacket – and the other was a Hustler kind of picture.’

Just as Alice’s work extends outwards from one biography to encompass multiple, Edgewise is both a portrait of the (singular) Cookie and a talking (plural) history of the communal underground art scene of the late twentieth century. It constantly moves from the intimate to the public performance of the intimate. And like An Unreliable Witness, chronology cannot be ascertained, as drugs and desire and dialogue bury it.


Back to the ‘present moment’ Alice that was: I didn’t want to do to the original recording what is trying to be done to that woman, where he’s trying to pin her down to dates: make it clear who she is and what time she lives. Anything I added I wanted to operate in the same fluid way as she does, evading chronology. My nan did exactly the same thing. She didn’t want to talk in timelines, or necessarily talk about her grandma. She just wanted to talk about what she wanted to talk about, and I knew I had to let her do that, because that is the strength of an oral history – it’s not just about securing timelines or getting things you can read in books – it’s about hearing someone’s current reflections on something. Anything.


Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.


As Sherna Berger Gluck writes: women’s oral history is a feminist encounter, even if the interviewee is not herself a feminist. It is the creation of a new type of material on women; it is the validation of women’s experiences; it is the communication among women of different generations; it is the discovery of our own roots and the development of a continuity, which has been denied us in traditional historical accounts. In her 1988 book Rosie the Riveter Revisited, Sherna used this model on the women workers of World War Two, sifting and detouring through past moments, both little and big, as a backwards route to thinking about what ‘contemporary’ feminism might mean and could do for them. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was also the collective subject of Alice’s video work We Can Do It! (2014), as this bicep pumping, blue shirted woman worker becomes a repeated online image of superficial feminist communality.


I became interested in the Rosie the River image due to its constant recycling and repetition, the act of which seemed to be erasing any possible stability it might once have had. It seemed to be an image, a code, a set of words completely up for grabs: it could mean so many different things to so many different ‘We’s’, leading to an unverifiable ‘felt’ kind of knowledge. Part of the appeal of the Rosie image, for me, is the rolling of her sleeves, and I became interested in the possible readings of that gesture: could it be a lesbian code of dress? It’s more like intimation than foolproof knowledge, but I think these forms of felt knowledge are just as much a part of how we make sense of the world, as the information we are given as truth/history/fact. In the current work, too, it is as much how things are said, as what is said. Jessie is dodging the linearity of history or fact by weaving us through sets of feelings or sensations.


In An Unreliable Witness, Alice (with Jessie as her sidekick) makes a joke out of living historically, as temporal orders overlap and converse into less structured units. Talking through the past and present at once, as a way to work through and understand it, rewrites the straight and phallic timeline. It inserts in its place a nonlinear concept of time, where histories can co-exist, all the while gazing in multiple directions. There are no first wave, second wave, or third wave feminisms in Alice’s work, as the generations talk to one another in a fragmentary fiction of chatter and noise. And feeling. The years intermix, become layered and one. 2015 becomes 1959 becomes 1865.


This is Elizabeth Freeman writing of such ‘non-sequential’ forms of time, which cackle against the normative chronology, just like Alice and Jessie: Queer temporalities… are points of resistance to this temporal order that, in turn, propose other possibilities for living in relation to indeterminately past, present and future others: that is: of living historically.


(We look to the Thames, as it curves from the wharfs to the west.)


Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness' (detail), 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’ (detail), 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca


An Unreliable Witness, the exhibition, is a body of research (with an etched wall drawing posing as a pretend family tree, and a printed fabric of Jessie’s drawn face repeated) that revolves and circulates around the restructuring of a found audio recording featuring the artist’s Great-Grand Grandma being interviewed by a male relative named Ken. This talking trace of 1959 resurfaced a few years ago over the family’s Christmas dinner, when Alice’s uncle played it to her Grandma through a phantom iPhone. I’ve just spoken to Grandma Jessie on the phone she said. As the artist writes of the event in the fragmentary transcript of literary and real-life quotation: Nan wasn’t crazy, or stupid, and she hadn’t lost the plot. She just didn’t have the words to describe the medium, which had channelled her grandma’s voice to her.


That medium, that document, was then taken care of by Alice: the responsibility of a life, a biography, in her hands. In the original recording, Ken asks Jessie questions about her life and the London in which she lived. He lingers on dates; she responds with a defiant what else do you want to know? and sends her interviewer off on chronological cul-de-sacs, interspersed with oblique but knowing chuckles.


Ken: And your father was a river pilot?

Jessie: Not a river pilot

Ken: River…

Jessie: Captain


And when Ken tries to bind Jessie to the erection of Tower Bridge, she evades his biographical tricks:


Ken: And you went down on the ship

Jessie: Ooh yes, of course

Ken: And when you went where Tower Bridge is now…

Jessie: Yes

Ken: … It wasn’t then built?

Jessie: Wasn’t then, No, no

Ken: Good heavens, we thought it had been there much longer than that, when was it built?

Jessie: Couldn’t tell you

Ken: Bout eighteen…

Jessie: Not the faintest idea, I’m a Londoner but I don’t know anything about London (throaty cough)


Alice: I find there is much more humour and humanity in writing verbatim than in formal prose. I think who is speaking and how they speak can really shape a set of words, so I try to let that come through.


In An Unreliable Witness, Alice weaves and layers conversations with her mother and grandmother (discussing Battersea Power Station and beauty culture) onto the raw 1959 document, as individual lives go forward and back, and merge, to make an alternative (edge-wise) biography of Jessie that is more communal than singular. Interviews can be a way to invent vocabularies for these social formations, which combine the intimate and the social, the informal and the institutional, said Ann Cvetkovich, in an essay that uses the metaphor of craft as conversation. In Alice’s audio fabric, multiple voices and histories shift and slide in patterns unknown, to be realized in the edit as an oddly biographical and fictional object. I guess I wanted it to be her autobiography, because I think that’s how she controls the conversation and everything else props towards that. But you’ve also got to recognise your place (Alice). Authorship is blurred, as each character (and author) is as unreliable as the next.


Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca


We get close to knowing Jessie, but it is more ‘felt’ knowledge, as Alice would say: we never get to see her or chat to her in any physical encounter. Our getting to know ‘her’ is much more psychic. In the same way we are also getting to ‘know’ Alice, through the people and things she has a distant relationship to, like a spindly branch on a family tree. It’s an autobiography of fragility and fiction: performance. Alice gets to know Jessie, gets to know Jane Eyre, gets to know Virginia, gets to know the dead she doesn’t know… calling to mind the naughty, wayward tracks Heather Love writes of in Feeling Backward: Perverse, immature, sterile and melancholic: even when they provoke fears about the future, they somehow also recall the past. They carry with them, as Djuna Barnes writes of her somnambulist heroine Robin Vote in Nightwood: the quality of the way back.


Jessie is the forgetful somnambulist, sleepwalking through the past in a forged daze. Alice takes on the same temporal position, giving a fictional life to the intimate and personal time that lies beyond the straitjacketing document. She does not ignore the chaos of feelings, as Jessie’s babble runs counter to ordered public measurements.


As Love elaborates in the same book of queer backwardness: Politics and feelings are very different kind of things: the public sphere is big, feelings are small; social life happens out there, psychic life, somewhere inside; public time is collective time, measured by the clock, whereas in psychic life, the train hardly ever runs on time.


An Unreliable Witness stages an interplay between these two poles of public and private: never one or the other, but a frenzied both that cannot be located. An Unreliable Witness is not simply an oral history work of mothers and memories, but through starting here, a wider social and economic history of London emerges. I should say histories. On top of her-stories. Buildings go up and down, the collective narrative running parallel to the private, working together.


I was interested in Battersea as a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, as a borough that got consumed by Lambeth and Wandsworth. A non-place. And even though they are now working on the regeneration of the power station and the surrounding area, whenever you see it referred to in print, they call it ‘nine elms on the south bank’, or the ‘western end of nine elms’.


In the transcript a similar conversation happens between Alice and her mum Jane Anne (with the writing of Virginia and the voice of Jessie stitched in between):

JA: They’re gonna keep the building? The base of it?

AM: mmmm look at this

JA: Quarter

AM: Its not, its like, its gross isn’t it

JA: God, the world’s finest retailers, restaurants, the old power station

AM: It’s not for people like us

Jessie: Ooooh! She screamed Mary! (throaty chuckle)


In An Unreliable Witness, Alice avoids the insular, self-soothing trap of making an artwork about motherhood, by using her mothers as characters, as voices, through which to channel broader discussions of identity, biography, time and place. I was very hesitant to make something family-oriented, because I think there’s something a bit gross about it. I really do not want this to be grounded in nostalgia. The artist interrupts the looming presence of nostalgia by forging communities between the living and the dead (Heather Love): she proposes time as something permeable and loose; likewise life-writing, as the artificial notes of Brontë and Woolf’s textual fragments are deposited on Alice’s own in the transcript, and voices of past and present synchronize as artifice in the recording.


I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on my way back from talking to Alice by Tower Bridge. On the face of it, it is a memoir, with the author’s story of queer family-making at its narrative heart. In the first paragraph, Maggie recounts verbatim the first moment of uncontrollable heart confession: ‘Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth…’ But The Argonauts is not only ‘about’ falling in love and becoming a mother (like An Unreliable Witness is not simply a maternal family tree). This is the book’s life-like subtext (as in similar but not quite). Maggie’s relationship with Harry Dodge: their wedding, her IVF and his top surgery, happens in and amidst critical reflections on language and body, politics and activism, perversion and freedom.


It has the feel of a diary that talks, with trespassing voices of anxiety and influence. I was thinking about how to write my conversation with Alice, and looked to The Argonauts’ typographical assertion of ‘real-life’ verbal events (as in: ‘I want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger) intermixed with textual fragments from those she has read, learnt from, whose writing and ideas has fed and nourished her own. Motherhood without pro-creation (or just creation of a different kind). The names of Eve Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Beatriz Preciado and more (including Harry), can be found in the book’s margins. As in: ‘Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people. This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one. It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion. Sedgwick’


In The Argonauts, just like in An Unreliable Witness, and what I have tried to write here, the recounting of a life cannot be constrained by a single viewpoint, by one voice. A life is not singular but multiple, as layered and mutating, and unpredictable, as the act of writing. To patch texts and recordings together, as Alice and Maggie have done, emphasises the artificiality and unreliability of memoir. The performance of life-writing becomes the stuff of the real. As Jessie always knew, to reconstruct a life can never amount to evidence, when feelings are sending us off on wayward paths.


Alice May Williams: An Unreliable Witness is a Project Space commission supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. The exhibition is open at Jerwood Space until 29 August 2015.