As part of Assembly Sarah Williams invited James Smith to conduct a series of conversations with the artists of the exhibition, here follows an edited version of those conversations.
James Smith and Charlie Woolley
JS: It is my desire to begin these three email conversations with exactly the same question. This is not to suggest that your practices are in any way identical, but to stress the point that an exhibition is a shared environment for a moment in time, from which your ideas will 'distribute' themselves through the different ways that people experience and engage with them - be it online or in physical actuality. With this in mind I would like to begin by asking about your experiences of working collaboratively; why do you employ it and what advantages does it afford your practice/s?
CW: I find it hard to say when collaboration became an issue within my practice, as I have always looked to other people to help expand ideas and ways of making. It always seemed sensible to me that if I wanted to work in a specific medium and I knew someone who was better at it than me I would go to them and work on it together. For example, a few years ago I wanted to start making flags. I had become interested in how they had this kind of double life, partly as these live objects waved in celebration or protest and partly as very elegiac objects draped or wrapped in memorial. I made a few on my own which where okay, but then I began collaborating on them with my Mum who had previously worked as a seamstress and a milliner, as had my grandmother. The work then began to take on whole new dimensions as it became imbued in historical practices and political issues such as 'Women's work.' They were also of course much better made, and more meaningful to me as objects. There are plenty of examples like this in my practice where collaboration was primarily used as a practical tool, but later went on to become central to the work. This is probably why I have turned to more explicitly collaborative ways of working more recently.
What these more deliberate collaborations afford my practice can be measured in all sorts of ways. I did my stint at art school studying painting, alone in the studio and found it largely unproductive. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that so much of contemporary art practice functions in this way.
I like that collaboration can be fluid and temporary as opposed to a fixed continuous project: I still have my own agency, my own practice, but it’s made up of many strings of intersecting conversations and relationships and I'm just a node, or a knot.
JS: Thanks Charlie, a really interesting response. I thought it would be interesting to bring in someone who you have worked with a great deal - Kate Cooper - who is part of the collective Auto Italia. Kate, Charlie has responded to several different projects at Auto Italia; I specifically wanted to ask you if you might talk a bit about his built environments - in particular how has his practice provided a framework for enhancing or challenging your curatorial, intellectual or educational programme?
Kate Cooper / Auto Italia: We have worked with Charlie in a number of different ways since we met him and I think he has a very unique way of approaching collaborative work. It is interesting to hear about his mother's engagement in the flag making and the practical beginning to collaboration which then develops in more creative partnerships.
This is something which I can definitely relate to and I think it is something that is shared by the way in which we try to approach collaboration at Auto Italia. We are interested in keeping ideas and possibilities open and developing a good working relationship and a really great project.
The thing that Charlie has managed to do in collaboration with us is create a space which facilitates other kinds of meetings, collaborations and partnerships. His openness and generosity really translates into some of the work and especially in the structures he made for 'We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion,' which we produced last August. I also found the way he worked with the archival material we had in that project really inspiring. He has a unique way of personalising our relationships with objects and negotiating the terrain between social moments or inter-personal relationships, and the images and objects which are used to create personal agency or group solidarity.
JS: Thanks Kate. In order to add more context to this discussion I think it is important to bring in some of the political narratives in Charlie’s work. Charlie, your work references, or enables, a number of radical political positions, and for ‘Assembly’ you will be developing this strand of your work. Could you tell us a bit about who you will be working with and what has informed your invitations?
CW: The work itself will function as a social space and for the most part I'm happy for it to do just that. I suppose this type of work will illicit three obvious types of response: there will be people who will look at the work as a complete sculpture from an outside vantage point; others will consciously engage and partake in the work expecting to experience art; and again others will unconsciously use the space not thinking of it as art at all. Most people will probably do a bit of all three. Of course this assumption is based on past experience but I'm fully prepared to be wrong about this and hopefully surprised by an unforeseen outcome.
I'm very much interested in the political narrative as you say, and with my work I try to push and pull at the aesthetics of activism.
My own initiation into activist politics came from my involvement in the M11 Link Road protests in and around Wanstead and Leytonstone in the early ‘90s. I was about 10 or 11 years old and my neighbourhood was suddenly swamped with a very different type of person. It was interesting to see how local working class socialists, like my parents, would interact with these new 'crusty' professional activists. I was totally drawn in, and found it difficult to understand why anyone wouldn't be, it was like having the circus come to town.
Something that was key to this type of community was activity. There was always something being made or built, games being played, music, dance, cooking; collective activity was valued above and beyond any other type, seemingly because it was the same collective spirit which fuelled and was felt on demonstrations. In their down-time these activists wanted to have the same feelings of solidarity as they did whilst actively protesting. I wanted to pursue the relationship between activism and activity so specifically invited groups and individuals with this kind of focus.
Seeing younger people now getting involved in movements like Occupy and Anonymous, and a myriad or smaller less well known collectives, it seems clear that a particular set of aesthetics function as an entry point to the discourse.
I think now more than ever is an important time to interrogate the fundamentals of this aesthetic and think about how it moulds certain ideals.
At the Time and Motion show at Auto Italia South East we had opened up a twitter feed with a hashtag to let people interact in their own space. Some of the feedback was extremely hostile and targeted largely at the look or feel of the building the event took place in, a disused car showroom only fairly recently refurbished but now marked for demolition. The event was focused on Autonomism and self-organisation with participation from amazing speakers and groups such as Nina Power, Mark Fisher, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi and was co-organised with the radical groups Deterritorial Support Group and Book Bloc Bookshop, yet some people couldn't see past the Ballardian space, it being haunted by the spectres of capital!
Some threatened to burn the building down, others suggested we try and squat a nice house in Belgravia. These comments revealed a very superficial relationship to the way radical ideas could be manifested in real space.
The most revealing of all was @dannyanarchy's criticism – that the show looked like an 'Anarchist Ikea'. DSG later turned this around in a Guardian interview proclaiming to be "happy with 'Ikea anarchism', because they give reasonably good design, on the cheap, to a lot of people, and it's very popular. It's better than the alternative, which is handmade anarchism."
This is a real point of interest for me: you can flick through an Ikea catalogue and read it as a series of proposed utopias that really don't look so different from the ideals of activists. In turn websites have sprung up teaching people how to hack Ikea furniture to serve new purposes, and why not? A lot of the aesthetics of activism have already been assimilated by capital anyway, why not pull them apart and start again?
JS: Thanks Charlie, I am particularly interested in where you say “it is an important time to interrogate the fundamentals of this (protest) aesthetic and think about how it moulds certain ideals.” I completely agree, it is an aesthetic that seems to seek separateness from the traditional political discourses through the use of its own developed set of materials and forms.
However later on you bring in this idea of interfacing with the known aesthetics of the time; a moment where there is not separateness - for example with the Ikea hacking – instead there is a co-opting and evolution of the dominant (design) aesthetic which sets up important possibilities for those wishing to subvert or think outside established or traditional political discourses.
James Smith and Kim Coleman + Jenny Hogarth
JS: It is my desire to begin these three email conversations with exactly the same question. This is not to suggest that your practices are in any way identical, but to stress the point that an exhibition is a shared environment for a moment in time, from which your ideas will 'distribute' themselves through the different ways that people experience and engage with them - be it online or in physical actuality. With this in mind I would like to begin by asking about your experiences of working collaboratively, why do you employ it and what advantages does it afford your practice/s?
KCJH: It’s fun, we like making work in tandem, it also means immediate feedback on ideas. Our work has always been the result of on-going conversation and often reveals this. Our video ‘If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you’ was of a Skype conversation we had about making the work. The call was recorded on the computers’ inbuilt cameras and on our own video cameras, and reassembled to reveal the dynamics of the set up. Our new blog is an even more structured insight into a dialogue. With the blog we are taking turns to post videos (in response to the other's previous post) to create an evolving video conversation.
JS: Thank you Jenny and Kim! I thought I would bring in Sarah Williams (curator of Assemblage) at this point: Sarah all the work in the show is newly commissioned, what was it about Jenny and Kim's practice that you found particularly interesting and is there anything you would like to expand upon in their thoughts so far?
SW: I am very interested in Kim and Jenny’s practice, how they engage the viewer and how their collaborative working process is revealed publicly, online and within a physical gallery context. The very nature of collaboration means that the direction of an artwork can progress in ways an artist can’t necessarily predict. Many of Kim and Jenny’s works are participatory and performative which means they contain a further unpredictability in outcome.
Their works are realized through events, video and sculptural installations, and consider technologies that augment ways of seeing, revealing how these technologies relate to the performativity of people, places and objects. They aim to heighten the sensual awareness of the staging of a place or event, changing the experience of viewing from spectacle to participatory.
Recent works draw out narrative from their practice, and are then revealed in the work itself. In the piece ‘If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you’ working process was revealed through conversational exchanges between the artists through Skype. In their most recent work for Assembly, this working process is documented through a series of instructions and a resulting ‘video conversation.’ As you scroll through the blog, and play the videos at the same time, the resulting footage contains a visual rhythm, easing the viewer through their thought process.
JS: Thanks Sarah, I am really glad you have brought in the technological aspect here as I wanted to ask Jenny and Kim if they could talk about the notion of how new media alter or update the notion of location in relation to artists’ practices.
For example we are conducting this conversation over a number of months. In that time I will have travelled and continued this conversation from several cities, and no doubt you might do the same - it just seems to be the nature of the art world. This has had me thinking about the 'fixity' of all artists' practices in relation to their situation or environment. Do you think that varying your environment on a regular basis does influence the work you make?
KCJH: Yes we're interested in the potential of communication technologies and when we started making the work for Jerwood decided to use a blog to share videos with each other when working in different places. We soon realised that a blog format, which orders posts by author and date, meant the blog itself became a demonstration of how our ideas developed along with our communication. It revealed how each set of videos, made from similar ideas but in different places, influenced each other. We've now started exploiting the online practice of tagging to rearrange the videos by their various shared attributes. Many posts focus on aspects of our movement or our location, so now videos with similar approaches or themes can be drawn out of the chronological order.
JS: I do find this fascinating, I’ve been thinking about this a lot more, so far I’ve been conducting this interview with you from London, Birmingham and now Berlin. Collaboration always seems to hinge on the strength or importance of communication technologies, and your practices does draw attention to these conditions very directly, not just for interacting but also for extending the possibilities of communication. For example in your project with Lux it is very much an abstract ‘conversation’ with each other through the uses of video vignettes of your journey around North America http://kimcolemanjennyhogarth.wordpress.com/. In light of our, so far purely textual interview, I was wondering what defines your decisions in terms of how and what to articulate in your environments?
KCJH: Our blog is an on-going archive of short videos made separately to be shown together. We often collect a lot of footage and narrow it down to a few clips which become the work for an exhibition. Creating a blog has been a way for our recorded videos to function more like our works that have used live video feeds, where the content is potentially endless.
We’re interested in how the content of a video is edited and compiled. We often create parameters when making a video and whatever happens within these limits becomes the footage. With this work for Assembly - where we have been making videos as we move around – we started letting the movement of the camera when travelling in a train, a car, on escalators, walking, or whatever, determine the content and length. For previous works using CCTV footage, we let the cameras’ automatic pre-set positions select the content of the installation, and we have made videos where we expose the camera and to changing light conditions, demonstrating the limits of the camera’s automatic light aperture and focus.
The content of the videos also reflect the medium we’re using and our experience of creating the work. We have posted to the blog alternately, and as the videos have accumulated they have mirrored each other at points. Symmetry and repetition in the videos themselves reflect this conversational dynamic, picking up on an idea in an earlier conversation or responding to a previous video in the sequence. Our works also capitalise on video’s inherent relationship to light and it's intrinsic link to how we see, how cameras work and to the fundamentals of representation and perception. They draw out links between video and performance, especially how objects can seem to perform through interaction with a lens, and how people perform consciously and unconsciously in relation to a camera. We're interested in how the camera is a prop in the performance of making the video . What our cameras record is changed by the events it is exposed to, and the subject is also altered by the presence of a camera.
James Smith and The Hut Project
JS: It is my desire to begin these three email conversations with exactly the same question. This is not to suggest that your practices are in any way identical, but to stress the point that an exhibition is a shared environment for a moment in time, from which the ideas will 'distribute' themselves through the different ways that people experience and engage with them - be it online or in physical actuality. With this in mind I would like to begin by asking about your experiences of working collaboratively, why do you employ it and what advantages does it afford your practice/s?
HP: One should drill the hole where the board is thickest. We collaborate so you don't have to.
JS: Thanks, I like your response, sometimes collaboration is put forward as a 'cure all' to a whole host of different situations. There are many instances when maybe solitude is just as important. When I came across your piece Un-fair (bronze cast of a stone from outside the artists’ studio, worn in the Assistant Director’s shoe during installation of ‘The Fair Show’) it also got me thinking about 'peas in princess' beds.' I wanted to ask you if the idea of irritation or deliberately working against the grain is something you continuously work towards in your practice to perhaps upset this cosy notion of collaboration?
HP: There is no self-knowledge except historical self-knowledge. I itch therefore I am.
JS: True! I like this idea of recognising the boundaries of our own personal experience. One of the pieces of work which I came across recently which makes this idea very explicit is Mehmet Sander's 'Single Space' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8bWLdIvpmY. I was wondering if you have a reaction to this piece in reference to the work that you are developing for Assembly?