In Conversation With: Robert Darch

Robert Darch

By Andy Thatcher (14th June 2021)
Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: You’re teaching on the BA Photography at Falmouth University. How has teaching impacted on your practice?

RD: I ran a collective for young photographers (Macula) for seven years. I photographed them for my project Vale and they became a part of that work, so there’s a direct correlation between my practice and that setting, it was kind of blended in. Maybe one area is keeping up to date, aware of current trends and what’s happening in photography. You have an overview of lots of different aspects, maybe not the single area that you’re particularly interested in and I think that opens you up a bit more.

I’m teaching students in a very difficult situation, in lockdown, and they’ve got to make work and be experimental. How can I teach them and say try this and do this and then myself, not? I should embrace that myself. I’ve been taking pictures through Zoom and I was initially reticent – it’s through a computer screen and that doesn’t interest me. But I like a challenge and I’m competitive. So – can I get something that looks great and people don’t realise it’s through Zoom?

AT: How do you think photographic practice changes once placed in an academic setting?

RD: A lot of undergraduates find it difficult – they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. There’s this overwhelming sense of deadlines. You’ve got to be quite succinct in terms of what you’re doing, so if you’ve got quite a free-flowing art practice, then you’ve got to find a way to fit that in, which I think is quite useful in terms of working commercially or editorially, with very short time frames to make work. For me, it was OK because I’d done the BA at Newport which is a very tough course and so that was my grounding.

The justification of an idea makes practice completely different. If you’re an amateur, you’re just taking pictures of what you like. So many students want to work like William Eggleston for example – I’ll just walk around where I like and that just catches my eye, take a picture of that. But what is it that you’re doing beyond that? Academia makes you think about questions like the context of the work, the theoretical underpinning. On the one hand, that can be like a weight that’s tying you down, but it can also be helpful. Anything that I make, I ask where does this sit? What is this saying? How are people going to view this? And I also work on a series, rather than just a single picture – a body of work, rather than this slightly more free-flowing way of working.

Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: You reference your childhood a lot in interviews, and my own childhood experience of commons in Kent and Sussex is central to my current project at Woodbury Common. Why is childhood so influential to the way you make work?

RD: Childhood is about formative experiences. When you’re a child, you’re experiencing things for the first time. It has a huge psychological impact on you and who you are. I grew up on the edge of Tamworth and when I was three my Mum would just let me roam in the cornfields, and there was a big house at the end of our road, an old Georgian manor house and they had an annual fireworks party. Going feeding the horses, that feeling of freedom and exploration – that carries forward. These things I did as a child and a young adult, they carry weight and influence the work I make far more than anything contemporary, or any influence of a photographer, because these influences came along in my early twenties. When I make work now that’s more contemporary, like The Island, the melancholy from that is the melancholy from being a teenager. The emotions are from earlier even though the subject is more contemporary.

We’d holiday in Devon and one of my first conscious memories was hunting dogs on Dartmoor, and it was just so unnatural to a three-year-old. These are also memories of remembering, even at ten or eleven I was very quiet and introspective so many of my memories are of memories of those memories if that makes any sense. It’s that internalisation that I visualise in my work.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

AT: There is often a melancholy in your images, sometimes a subtle use of light, sometimes an unmistakable subject as with The Island. Is this a conscious decision?

Yes. Definitely. I sometimes joke that I could describe my work as beautifully sad. I’m not a particularly sad person, but I think you tap into that melancholy you’ve experienced from life and with The Island I was referencing that sense of being a teenager and your first girlfriend breaking up with you and sitting in your room and listening to sad music, wallowing a bit. That sadness is not depression though. You’re slightly nostalgic about that intensity of feeling – being in the Midlands and it’s winter and it’s wet and it’s bleak and it’s raining and you’re just bummed out and there’s something about that. It’s not a great emotion but it’s a powerful emotion and it’s something you tap into. Because I had all those years of illness, I can easily tap into that notion of being in a room and listening to melancholic music. Music can capture melancholy so well, it really is the best medium for that. I don’t think photography can ever do that in the same way.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

I’ve never been clinically depressed so for me, it’s that bookend of emotion – without the sadness you don’t know the joy. You’re melancholy and sad about what is past and what is gone – there’s a weight there. Because Vale is about being ill and losing my twenties, there’s that juxtaposition between bucolic, sublime summer landscapes and these young, beautiful people, and there’s an obvious juxtaposition with looking sad in that landscape. The work is layered. It’s carrying emotions. It’s a direct reflection of that sadness.

Robert Darch (2021) from Vale

AT: Your work often blends the fictional and the documentary, and you’ve mentioned that you’re a frustrated filmmaker. Would you consider working with video? What can photography achieve which film cannot – and vice versa?

RD: Before I went back to do my Masters, I was working a lot with video. With Arnolfini and Spacex, I did all their video work, and a couple of music videos for local bands. I always made skateboard videos, little short videos on holidays. But photography was always my first love, and I decided to study it. I’m definitely someone who likes to work by myself as I’m confident enough to know what I’m doing – this is my work, this is my vision – and photography allows me to do that, it’s all me, there’s that selfishness. The best films happen where you’ve got one or two people who’ve got a clear vision and they’ve been left alone to make it, rather than diluted with different voices.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

The advantage of film is mis-en-scene – you have sound and you have music to create atmosphere, particularly in horror, to create that tension. The Moor was in a way an attempt to create something that had that aesthetic, but you were missing the sound and the music. A way to explain the series would be to imagine it was stills from a film that doesn’t exist. I wanted to make these very striking photographs, creating images that would be like the film poster. I hadn’t seen anything similar, like an artist or a photographer working in this way and this always makes me question the validity of what I am doing. I think this is quite common.

The power of the still image is the time that you have with that image. I felt like there could’ve been video with Durlescombe, like with the threshing machine and the moving image of that working was amazing, and that could’ve easily made an interesting documentary subject, but I think it was a question of practicality. If I wanted to work in film, I wouldn’t be interested in just using the moving image like conceptual, fine art. I would want to make this big narrative, with actors, have all this staging, etc.

Robert Darch (2018+) from Durlescombe

AT: This blend of the fictional and the documentary brings to mind Gideon Koppel’s film Sleep Furiously, set in a partly-fictionalized Welsh sheep farming community. What can an imaginative engagement with place achieve that an, ostensibly, more objective documentary approach cannot?

RD: I think the notion of documentary is outdated – this sense of what you are seeing as the viewer as the truth. A factual account is not the case. It never was documentary, it always was subjective, dependent on the creator, their motivations aesthetically, their political background, what they were trying to tell an audience. In the case of Durlescombe, that allowed me a much broader reach in terms of places and locations. The name is a place holder, a tool to collate this work in what that sounds like a real place. The work is 95% documentary. It might appear quite similar in terms of the staging to the The Moor, but nothing is staged, it’s all happening there, so I’m taking the pictures of these scenes in front of me, like the image of John in the barn just leaning down. You’re seeing things happening and then you’re capturing them. And in terms of the portraiture you’re just telling people to stop what they’re doing sometimes. I remember that excitement, particularly with the threshers, because I was there and I didn’t have that control anymore. It was often about stepping back and seeing the whole scene.

Robert Darch (2018+) from Durlescombe

I’m photographing the Ten Tors and that’s much more documentary but I’m imbuing it with this melancholy, this heavy black and white, so there’s still a subjective narrative there. It’s truthful in a lot of ways to the Ten Tors, but a lot of days they’re walking and it’s sunny and it’s easy but I’m focussing on this young-people-versus-nature, so it’s my subjective version of the Ten Tors.

I always make work that’s layered. If it’s very straight, it’s not telling me something new or something different. There’s not enough there to engage me. Work that interests me makes me look at it and question what I’m looking at. Was this staged? Is this documentary? You’re questioning the veracity of what you’re seeing. That’s what I find interesting.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: What photographers have influenced you along the way? Whose work excites you currently?

RD: The work I’m drawn to is predominantly like the work I make. It’s people who are working in a similar way but differently. Like they’re picking up on similar influences, for example, myths and folklore. There’s so much photography out there. I’m drawn to work that impacts me, that draws out an emotional response, that I have this instant reaction to in terms of how it’s photographed, or in terms of how it’s presented.

Jem Southam is a critical influence. I was introduced to his work during my BA at Newport and out of the British work I was shown, in terms of landscape, it was the work I was drawn to. He was working in colour, large format. The Red River is one of my favourite photography books. It was integral in informing how I could look at the landscape as it was the first book that I had seen with a real lyrical, poetic quality; it was much more than just a series of pictures of the Red River. The work resonated with me and I knew then at twenty-one, that’s how I wanted to approach photography, with emotion, poetry and feeling. Then after moving to Exeter, I found I was living around the corner from him and was introduced to Jem.

My favourite contemporary photographer is Tereza Zelenkova. She’s a Czech photographer whose work predominately deals with myth and the landscape. Themes of the uncanny really underpins her work. Similarly, Robin Friend. He studied at Plymouth quite a few years ago with Jem and his book Bastard Countryside is really fascinating – that notion of a spoiled landscape is really interesting. Vasantha Yogananthan is a Peruvian Indian photographer. He deals a lot with his identity, photographing in India but around this idea of narrative in myth and religion. His work is sublime and complex.

AT: What other artists, writers, filmmakers and so-on have influenced your practice?

Painters like John Northcote Nash, Eric Ravillious whose subject is the English landscape. Constable would come into that too. Also Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. It’s this beautiful sense of place and light – they’re integral to these painters.

Influences from literature are very much more from my childhood. Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion of the World has a backdrop of poaching and pheasants in this autumnal landscape. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five is coastal, with a level of mystery and exploration. More recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was an influence on The Moor, particularly the notion that you’re inhabiting this dystopian environment but there’s no explanation about the dystopia.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

I talk about childhood films like Black Island and the British Film Foundation films. They wouldn’t get shown now but they made great one-hour films with real attention to light and detail. The acting was sometimes a bit ropey, but they had a huge impact on me as a young child. And also contemporary filmmakers like Wim Wenders that have crossed over into photography. His book Once was one of the early photography books I had and I’d go through it a lot looking at the pictures. His latter films weren’t so good, but his visuals and the colour in films like Million Dollar Hotel are sublime.

AT: You’ve mentioned you are a heart and not a head photographer. Can you say a bit more about that?

RD: It’s a very basic generalisation, but I want people to have a very emotional response to my work. I try to make images that provoke some kind of emotional response. I’m drawn to subjects through my own personal history and formative and emotional experiences. You have a lot of contemporary photography that’s very intellectualised. To me it doesn’t really have any aesthetic value. It can be really clinical, very much about the concept, which sounds sophisticated but it’s actually quite simplistic. A lot of that work is quite elitist and aimed at a very small audience. It’s not something that interests me. However, it can be successful when you combine a complex theoretical underpinning with sublime, aesthetically engaging images. For me, I’ve always got to be drawn into work by the image. I’ve got to have some emotional response to it. If I’m not drawn into the image, then why would I care what it’s about? That doesn’t mean the work I make isn’t layered or contextualised, but that theory is always secondary to the images for me. Often in over-intellectualised work, the images seem to be an afterthought.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: I find Dartmoor fascinating, particularly as it’s an entirely manmade landscape and deeply scarred. That resonated with me in The Moor. That’s not the Dartmoor most people seek and expect. What is your relationship to the Picturesque and the Sublime more typically depicting the moors?

RD: It comes down to a subjective response to it. You’ve got people like Gary Fabian Miller who’s going out and walking in a small part of the moor and then making sublime camera less pictures in his darkroom. My response is working in that Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of how the moor is viewed, this unforgiving, bleak, mysterious landscape. Also, the moors written about by Enid Blyton as this place of trepidation and mystery. It’s nice to walk on Dartmoor in the sunshine but I don’t have the same emotional response to that. I like being a bit scared, lost and excited because this is a bit mysterious. I have been following the Ten Tors recently and we’re out in the middle of the moor in thick cloud and it’s like being on another planet. It’s so unnatural, it’s unbelievable. The response I have to that captivates me. I’m fine with people taking pretty HDR pictures but to me they’re just superficial pictures of pretty landscapes, they don’t have any emotional depth. It’s always that distinction: what’s the work saying above and beyond it just being a pretty picture of a landscape. That’s what Dartmoor is for a lot of people.

When I started my Masters, I always knew I wanted to make a work about Dartmoor. I had a very intense emotional response to it from a very formative experience when I visited as a young child. I was drawn to this landscape. I questioned who had made work on Dartmoor? Was there anyone who had envisaged it how I see Dartmoor? There was Gary Fabian Miller, working with camera less photography. Chris Chapman who was making more traditional documentary work. Susan Derges who was working with camera less photography as well. And more recently Nick White has made a series on the militarisation of Dartmoor. I think it’s important to be aware of who has worked in a similar area as you.

In the end, I titled the series as The Moor because I wanted some ambiguity about the location. It’s interesting to note that recently the Black Mirror episode Metalhead was shot in some of the same places I used for The Moor, that someone with a similar dystopian idea was drawn to a similar landscape.

Robert Darch (2018) from The Moor

AT: Outside of your personal connections and photographic practice, what informs your relationships with places?

RD: When I was on the BA at Newport I was so influenced by everything from America. I’d walk around the edges of my small Midlands town and try and take pictures that looked like a Robert Adams picture, with big open landscapes and a horizon. Even though I’ve never been to America I’m so influenced by their culture, pictures, filmmaking, television and photography, it feels like I have been to America. I can imagine if I do visit, it will have such a strange familiarity.

This culture and the visual references hugely influence what I do. For example, Vale draws on these influences; some of the images are imbued with a sense of Southern Gothic, spirituality and religion.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

I don’t have an academic relationship with landscape. It’s very much instinctive, that I feel like there’s some familiarity with the place. I will find a place and I’ll have an emotional response to it that’s derived from personal experience. I’m not so interested in a political landscape. Although The Island is the most political work I’ve made, it’s not really political in terms of dealing with that sense of struggle and ownership. It could just as equally have been about Covid, that melancholy and people being by themselves. Leaving Europe was the genesis, but it can work outside of that. It’s almost a precursor to the bleakness and melancholy of Covid.

Robert Darch (2020) from The Island

AT: Finally – the inevitable question – how have you responded to Covid-19 in your photography? Has it caused a change in the way you see place and your practice?

RD: My initial plan was not to make any new work during the lockdown. I was going to catch up on editing. I started cycling again and I was regularly cycling up to a tree on the southern edge of Exeter because it was just an easy focal point for a short cycle. As I was there, I just started taking pictures.

Then I got asked by a curator and a photographer to do some pictures using Zoom or a similar platform. I was initially reticent because I thought it was going to be terrible, it didn’t interest me or seem to fit into my practice. However, I’d been mulling over an idea for a year or two about referencing a sense of past Britain. Incorporating references like Agatha Christie, imagining characters that would inhabit these novels – and picturing the landscapes of the English Riviera. I had met with a young actor before lockdown to discuss taking some pictures, but this didn’t happen because of lockdown.

However, after a while I thought it would make sense to try and photograph her through a screen as she often emulates screen stars, so there’s a direct correlation. It’s a combination of new pictures through Zoom and archive images that I took pre-Masters when my subject matter was located more around the British coastline.

It’s really at an early stage but aesthetically, it’s sitting together nicely. The heavy use of grain is covering up the screen moiré from Zoom, but it’s also referencing something and adding an ambiguity. People are trying to work out what I’m doing – is this new, is this old?

It’s been good in terms of having a focus, still being able to photograph with somebody under lockdown. An easy way to describe the work is this love/hate relationship I have with this sense of Britishness. I like a lot of the British landscape and some of this nostalgia around the past, but I hate the small-mindedness and I hate the Brexit.

I envisage places the same as before Covid. Cycling up to the tree, making work there, was very much to do with the sense of that place and the significance of that tree for a lot of people in Exeter. The newer work is very much about place and Britishness. Covid has stopped me continuing the work on Durlescombe. For example, I’m not photographing on the farms because I don’t feel it’s particularly right, but there’s no rush and no deadline and I can carry that on at the time I feel is appropriate. It’s good to be open to new ways of working. I think that’s important to students as well not have this fixed idea of this is what I’m doing.

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In Conversation With: Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron

Shona Waldron is an interdisciplinary artist based between East Sussex and Cornwall, UK. Working across a diverse range of media including photography, painting, moving image and installation, she articulates a world of uncertainty, frequently using a combination of digital and analogue techniques to manipulate the periphery of fact and fiction. The blurring of these demarcations plays a crucial role in exploring ideas centred around time, space and the nature of existence, presenting life as a source of wonder and infinite possibility. Investigating states of change or metamorphosis is also a recurrent theme as she uses her work to illustrate the transition into a future which is impossible to predict or control. 

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Primordial Loop from Shona Waldron on Vimeo.

Shona Waldron Sensorium

24th – 28th June 2021

The Fish Factory, Penryn, Cornwall

Private View: 24th June 2021: 6pm – 9pm 

BtL: Your upcoming exhibition Sensorium opens on the 24th June 2021. It brings together works from several of your recent projects. Can you sum up any overall themes in your practice?

SW: Sensorium is a collection of work that encompasses moving image, photography, painting and installation. The title draws inspiration from the sensory apparatus of the human body which is responsible for receiving and interpreting external stimuli. Intended to be viewed as part of an immersive experience, each exhibited piece explores themes surrounding the intersection of art, science and technology, evoking the idea of new realities that are activated by our perceptual encounters with the space.

Although my work often makes reference to scientific language and taxonomical systems, there is equally a free-flowing element that induces feelings of fluidity and life in a constant cycle of evolution. There are also parallels made between the organic and the technical, with a blending together of analogue and digital media to allow the subject matter to exist in a transformed state that surpasses the limits of its original definition.

BtL: You seem to be interested in visually exploring the relationship between the technological world and the natural world. Why is it important for you to incorporate a range of media into your practice?

SW: The incorporation of a variety of media and processes is definitely very important. I find that moving beyond the boundaries of a purely photographic practice allows the work to function in a universal context which is useful when dealing with these expansive and broad themes. This mixed media approach makes it easier for my work to emphasise connections on multiple levels, whether it be visual, auditory or as an entire sensorial experience. I think this way of working is helpful in creating a sense of dynamism, something that is of particular interest in light of my ideas surrounding the mutable relationship between technological and biological forms.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: The title of your video work Primordial Loop seems to both juxtapose and connect the idea of new possibilities / the inter-connectedness of man and machine; the technical and the organic…

SW: Primordial Loop is an experimental video piece that incorporates 3D modelling and animation. Its title draws inspiration from ‘primordial soup’, a term often used to refer to the blend of biological conditions that first enabled life on our planet. In addition to looking back towards these early beginnings, the work explores our immersion in the digital world by reinterpreting natural environments through the screen-based society we inhabit. The study of evolutionary processes is also of great importance as this ultimately evokes a transcendental journey through the past, present and future as well as a fusion of the organic and the technical.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Emphasis is placed upon these themes from the very onset of the piece which opens with an animation of cells dividing, a sequence that delineates a point of origin and the genesis of new life. The cells then fade out of view to be replaced by jellyfish that float across the scene, gelatinous in form with iridescent hues of purple and blue. Although included due to their    their correspondence with the cells, the jellyfish are notable in presence since they are one of the oldest species to exist on our planet, residing in our oceans for more than 500 million years. This remarkable timescale predates the dinosaurs and is fascinating in light of my ideas surrounding primal states.

 

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

Following this, the video transitions into a haze of violet light which dissipates to reveal the shapes and structures of tree branches, rocks and mountains as scenes of a digital jungle emerge. Moving deeper into the landscape and through the undergrowth, circular patterns begin to appear with organic matter converging into the centre point where the panels of the video meet, creating a hypnotic effect that is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

BtL: Do you think your process of digitally constructing the work is important as a way of situating these primitive visual landscapes within the conditions of the 21st Century?

SW: Absolutely. The digital process allows nature to exist in a computational form and suggests that it is not estranged from technology in the way that we might initially imagine. In the text Novacene – The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, (2019) the scientist James Lovelock reiterates this view. He proposes that ‘computers work purely in zeros and ones; from   that they can construct entire worlds … information may indeed be the basis of the cosmos’ (2019: 88). It is this description of the cosmos being made up of information, that is referenced in a literal sense within my work.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This environment visually resembles many of teamLab’s installations such as The Infinite Crystal Universe. Presented as immersive experiences, teamLab encourages us to reach infinity and oneness by seeking to ‘transcend boundaries in the relationship between the self and the world, and of the continuity of time’ (Pace Gallery 2014). Computer programmes and algorithms are widely used in the creation of these works, engendering the belief in a computational universe in the same way that my work intends to.

teamLab (2015-2018) The Infinite Crystal Universe

BtL: You seems to situate your visual practice across a variety of thresholds. Can you give us a few examples?

SW: Further influential research includes the concept of the technological singularity, a term first popularised in 1993 with Vernor Vinge’s essay The Coming Technological Singularity. In physics, a singularity is defined as a point of infinity, such as the centre of a black hole, where matter becomes endlessly dense and physical  laws break down, resulting in the merging of space and time. In relation to this scientific definition, the theory of the technological singularity hypothesises that we will soon cross a threshold where machine intelligence will surpass biological intelligence, an advancement that will lead to irreversible changes to civilisation.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, suggests that ‘machine intelligence could become indistinguishable from that of its human progenitors within the first half of the twenty-first century’ (2005: 3). What this will look like for humanity is unclear as both a dystopian and utopian scenario would be possible. Either way, it is the notion of transcending current limitations that is most intriguing. It is also speculated that the universe began by such an event, meaning that there was a singularity in our past as well as one potentially in our future, demonstrating the way history repeats itself in a loop.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

This notion of the singularity manifests in Primordial Loop when the screen becomes increasingly pixelated and the motion accelerates, referencing the exponential rate that we are approaching what is often referred to as the ‘event horizon’ (Kurzweil 2005: 7). Once this is reached, the centre of the screen unfolds to reveal a passage into a new space-time dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Primordial Loop

The final scene reveals the culmination of this journey into a post-singularity state. The video fragments, breaking apart from its original structure and transforming into multiple screens floating within a dark void. The plurality of the work opens up new ways for it to exist, with the panels constantly moving across the X, Y and Z axes. The music also shifts from its electronic sound to something choral and celestial. At this point in the video, space is perceived in a more fluid way, it bends and stretches, becoming something that we develop a heightened awareness of.

Yayoi Kusama (2019) Infinity Mirrored Room: Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe

This exploration of a boundless existence relates strongly to Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, another key inspiration for my practice. The installation, Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe, is described as a perceptual experience that functions as ‘a harmonious and quiet place for visitors to contemplate their existence, reflect on the passage of time, and think about their relationship to the outer world’ (Hirshhorn 2017). The title of Kusama’s piece acts as an expression of hope and resonates with my own feelings of reverence for the infinite. A sense of spirituality is embodied within the ending of my work, suggesting that it has indeed transcended in the same way that it is predicted that we, as humans, will one day transcend our own experience of reality.

BtL: The photographic strand of your practice, titled Merge/Melt, seems to explore similar notions to Primordial Loop through amalgamating technological and natural elements to create something that exists in a transformed state.

SW: Merge/Melt experiments with the use of digital tools to build new forms and structures, revealing warped patterns and textures that suggest  the physical world is melting into an electronic one. During the production of the series, photographs of jungles and cityscapes were fed into an algorithm and then merged together to generate new entities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

The Deep Dream algorithm was used specifically for this purpose as it was able to draw out interesting shapes within the depths of the images. Deep Dream is described as a convolutional neural network and was originally developed in 2015 as a means of providing AI researchers with an insight into what an algorithm sees when it analyses an image. Since its inception, however, it has primarily been used as an artistic tool with results that are psychedelic in appearance. The artist Mario Klingemann is one of the pioneers of working with neural networks in this way. The works Archimedes Principle and Parting From You Now, draw attention to the pareidolic details that can emerge from an image, in the same way that humans are able to observe random shapes in passing clouds. The ability of Deep Dream to provide an algorithmic vision of our environments relates to the computational form of nature seen in Primordial Loop, epitomising the suggestion that ‘computation is existence’ (Lloyd and Ng cited in Kurzweil 2005: 342).

Mario Klingemann (2016) Archimedes’ Principle
Mario Klingemann (2016) Parting From You Now

BtL: There is appears both a visual and conceptual fluidity to your practice, yet also a sense of chaos and the unexpected.

Artist and theorist Joanna Zylinska’s text AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams also feels especially relevant. Zylinska refers to algorithmic art as ‘an ouroboros-like circle of random variations’ (2020: 72), a description that encapsulates the chaotic nature of my work but equally observes the connectivity that is so integral to its construction. The effect of this merging process is the predominant feature.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt
Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

In some images, it becomes difficult to distinguish city lights from stars as the sky dissolves into the architecture and structures blend together like coloured inks, a liquid yet luminous appearance that could almost be the result of street lights reflected in a pool of water. Due to the alteration and enhancement of certain hues, some of the images look more industrial and synthetic whilst others, with jewel bright shades of green and blue, are more jungle-like, allowing each composition to exist on a continuum between metropolis and nature. It is this fluctuation that I find most inspiring as it underscores my interest in the creation of multiplicities.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

To clearly communicate a sense of things evolving, I present my images as animated video sequences on screens and opted for a circular format in order to create a stronger comparison to the concepts explored in Primordial Loop. These circular shaped pieces embody a more pronounced mutability and link back to Zylinska’s reference to the loop of the ‘ouroboros’, reflecting wholeness and infinity. They additionally have the look of portals, perhaps acting in a similar way to black holes. This creates a further parallel with my video piece which also leads us through into a new dimension.

Shona Waldron (2021) from Merge / Melt

BtL: You are a graduate of the BA Photography course at Falmouth University. Any tips or advice for current / prospective students?

SW: My advice would be to view university as a time to experiment with photography, to try out new ways of working and push the boundaries of the medium. Over the course of my three years at Falmouth, I feel fortunate to have been able to expand my practical image making skills, both with analogue and digital processes. Although it can be strange to do something unfamiliar, I would completely recommend it as it will enable you to develop new areas of interest and gain a broader experience of the arts. And, it goes without saying, to make the most of the university facilities and technical workshops in addition to opportunities for collaborative working whilst you are a student as this provides invaluable support.

BtL: What can we expect from you next?

SW: I am planning to develop more work that expands upon the themes seen Sensorium and incorporates a variety of techniques, I will be continuing to practice in other visual disciplines alongside my photography. In addition to lens-based media, i will be continuing to branch out into other areas such as painting, sculpture and installation – and continuing to experiment. Who knows?

Routledge Award Winner: Summer 2021

In Conversation With: Dinu Li

Dinu Li

Dinu Li is a multi-disciplinary artist and Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University who has exhibited internationally for both solo and collaborative shows. His practice delves into his engagement with his Chinese heritage, the socio-political conditions of place, as well as the intangibility of memory. This interview is a dissemination of a number of key areas ranging from his migration to the U.K and his discovery of photography, through his projects as a professional and his insight into the current educational climate.

by Louis Stopforth (4th june 2021)
Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: You mention your first encounter with photography and how you could read the images. Is this something you have found with producing works of your own, that you could communicate beyond language barriers?

DL: I have been surrounded by photographs since my childhood, growing up in Hong Kong. My dad came to the UK when I was a few months old, and so my understanding of him came via photographs of him displayed on my mother’s dressing table. There were images of him posing in Trafalgar Square, or standing in a snow filled park, or standing next to his car. Those snapshots were placed next to photographs taken in China of my aunt, uncle and cousins. As the photographs were quite small, I paid a lot of attention to observing all the details contained within the compositions, creating my own narratives around what I saw.

I then came across the photographers Chris Killip and Joseph Koudelka by accident whilst wandering around a bookshop in my early-twenties. Up until then, I hadn’t taken photography seriously. I walked randomly inside the store, and casually arrived into the arts department, stopping at bookshelf ‘K’. Without thinking, I pulled out two books, In Flagrante by Killip and Exiles by Koudelka. Using my intuition, I was able to dissect the images to make sense of the world as seen through the eyes of both photographers. I guess my formative years looking at my family photographs must have helped, as I seem to have been able to read those images as if reading text.

LS: Your work delves between contrasts of barriers as well as unity within humankind. Has emigrating as a child caused these themes to have significant prevalence in you work? Especially as you navigated through various cultures and sub-cultures as you settled in England?

DL: Working class families in Hong Kong live in densely populated environments, and neighbours can appear as if they are literally living besides you. As we didn’t have a television at home, I spent my childhood peering through the cracks and gaps of closed shutters or venetian blinds, so I could watch tv programmes from other people’s televisions. My understanding of popular culture was one of half experiences or half satisfactions, as I never got the full picture from looking through those gaps.

I was brought up in Hong Kong when it was still part of the British colony, and so the sounds coming from my neighbour’s television sets was a melting pot between Chinese opera and American detective series depending which channel those families were watching. At one time, I recall going to the cinema twice in one week, watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one day and Chinese revolutionary ballet on another day

I moved to the UK as a seven-year old, but settling here was not easy, as the locals were unwelcoming to foreigners. Within weeks of my arrival, two boys living a few doors away pounced on me one day, as I was about to set off for school. They pushed me against a wall, slapped me around a few times, and filled my pants with handfuls of soil. As they ran off, they shouted “get back to where you come from”. As disturbing as it was, that memory has been a catalyst to some of my work in my art practice. It has been a paradoxical concept to imagine a backwards walk to one’s birthplace, with a trail of British earth leading from a point of departure to a final point of destination.

LS: We Write Our Own History is a photographic body of work that consists of arrangements constructed by demonstrators from the 2014 Hong Kong protests, displaying incidents they experienced. When looking at this work classical painting, particularly works from the Dutch Golden Age, come to mind as unassuming objects carry metaphorical significance. Did you ever think of the work in this way when it was produced?

DL: I have a deep appreciation of painting from the Dutch Golden Age, and it is ironic how my images from We Write Our Own History shares similar tensions to one particular painter of that period called Clara Peeters. For example, it is noticeable in so many of Peeters’ paintings that her table top items are often placed on the very edge of the table, as if on the verge of tipping over. This causes a sense of unease that I hope is also apparent in my photographs.

Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

Another striking feature is the incongruous manner by which items are placed, as if going against traditions of still-life painting. In her painting Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels (1611), Peeters places a large goblet not only at a central vantage point, but also in front of much smaller items. This is unusual, as such items had historically been placed at the back of a large arrangement, to avoid blocking an overview.

Clara Peeters (1611) Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit and Pretzels
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History
Dinu Li (2017) from We Write Our Own History

LS: When studying under you, you encouraged collaboration with others. Does this advice stem from your own experience engaging with art institutions or projects in which you have made investigations in conjunction with people? Or is there another reason you stress the importance of collaboration and partnerships?

DL: The status of art and artists was put in question by Duchamp, who acted as agent provocateur, provoking deeper critical engagement in the arts, and as a challenge to systems, institutions and traditions. I share Duchamp’s sentiments in challenging the status quo, and wish to be considered a verb, rather than be labelled by a noun.

By verb over a noun, I mean it is not important for me to be classified as an artist. It is only important to me that I have actioned something or made something. When my work is good, it maybe classed as art or otherwise. Since post-modernity, the status of art has been questioned further, and so the emergence of sharing that status by participation, collaboration and community engagement was inevitable.

The post-modernist American architect Buckminster Fuller wrote the book I Seem to be a Verb (1970), in which he states “I live on Earth at the present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” By that account, and being an integral function, it is no accident that I seek to share the production or delivery of art making with others. At times, my function is simply as facilitator.

LS: Memory and narrative are consistent themes within your works, in particular your trilogy of films within The Anatomy of Place, and your project The Mother of All Journeys. Why is this? Is it an engagement with your native culture or is it a way of providing physicality to an otherwise intangible that may otherwise one day become forgotten?

Dinu Li (2019) from The Anatomy of Place

DL: Yes, I think you’ve guessed correctly. Perhaps the best way to answer your question is to elaborate on another artist, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her sculptures take the form of resin casts, allowing Whiteread to give space a physical presence. What we bypass and ignore everyday are our spaces, as space is invisible. But by giving space a substance, not only does it become visible, but they occupy more presence, more prominence. One of my favourite pieces by Whiteread is also one of her earliest works called Shallow Breath (1988) in which she casted the intimate space directly underneath her father’s mattress, as if Whiteread is making visible, the invisible breaths by her father, breaths that could have infiltrated into the underside of his own bed.

Rachel Whiteread (1988) Shallow Breath

LS: In regards to your trilogy of films (Ancestral Nation, Family Village and Nation Family) was it due to having extensive time working on an off with one subject that the work was concluded as a trilogy or was it more than this?

DL:The genesis to my trilogy came about because I was interested in the word ‘country’ in its Chinese written form. In Chinese, that word can be expressed in three different ways, partly depending on the evolution of the Chinese lexicon, partly due to personal circumstance and so on. For example, in ancient China ‘Ancestral Nation’ would have been used to express the word for ‘country’. People who leave China to emigrate to far away countries often use the words “Family Village” due to its nostalgic undertone. However, Nation Family is the most common way to express the word for ‘country’.

Nation Family Trailer from Dinu Li on Vimeo.

I simply used those three terms as titles for each of my trilogies, and made work in response to the words. For example, for Ancestral Nation, some of the work took place in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the philosopher generally understood to have helped shape the Chinese characteristics. For Family Village, I examined vernacular architecture in contemporary China. And for Nation Family, I interrogated a specific period in the life of a cousin, by using an old black and white photograph of him as my starting point. It is one of the photographs I looked at as a child growing up in Hong Kong.

LS: During The Mother of All Journeys there is an emphasis on memory, and its relationship to actual time and space. Was the use of photography for you essential given its almost institutionalised place as an artefact of record and its own connection to time and space?

DL: In that project, I was interested in interrogating the authenticity of memory itself and to also problematise photography as a form of documentation. I guess the work started all the way back to those years when I used to form my own narrative about family members through their photographs displayed on my mother’s dressing table. In those years, my mother told my stories related to each photograph, which mixed in with my own imagination about the lives of my relatives. The Mother of All Journeys was an attempt to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of my mother’s life experiences, using old family snapshots to aid our journeys.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

By the time I was ready to make this work, my mother was already in her 70’s and being forgetful about memories she has instilled in me. Our collaboration involved me recounting my mother’s memories back to her, in order for us to locate the site of her memories. The work involved a lot of missteps, as our combined memories as reliable sources slipped in-between moments of clarity and other moments of uncertainty.

LS: When The Mother of All Journeys was exhibited at the Amelia Johnson Contemporary there seemed to be a clear emphasis on the spatial configuration of the work, and how it was situated both on the walls as well as within the gallery space itself. What influenced this presentation?

DL: Due to the complexities of the project, we divided the exhibition into three parts, using walls as demarcations to define geographic differences. The work involved journeys to China, Hong Kong and parts of Northern England, and so their separation in terms of exhibition display felt necessary.

Dinu Li (2007) from The Mother of All Journeys

LS: Do you think it is important for photographic work, work that is typically flat surfaced and wall supported, to be displayed in a more spatially configured and engaging way? And are there particular kinds of spaces you like to work with?

DL: I think it is important to work with a given space, responding to the architecture in site specific ways. I find it exciting to display my work in different ways depending on the site, and how the light moves across that space over the course of the day. Sometimes a long wall lends itself to displaying work in a linear fashion. Other times, if a space has a variety of rooms, the same body of work can be reconfigured in other interesting ways.

One of the most interesting spaces I have enjoyed working in recently is Birkenhead Market, where I occupied several market units to display my trilogy and several other pieces. I was so excited to install my work in such a context, as market aesthetics always reminds me of my childhood, since the place I grew in was stones-throw away from Hong Kong’s famous street markets.

LS: After having first-hand experience studying under you at Falmouth University, where you are Senior Lecturer in Photography, I know how you really push students to produce unique and meaningful work. Do you ever find that being in your position, surrounded by students, that you look at things differently based on conversations you have with them or work you see?

DL: I am beginning to see more students working on projects but unable to discuss the meaning behind what they have spent months doing. in their works, there is a trend in projects that appear autobiographical; political without recognising that’s what they are doing; and most recently, a return to documentary traditions in landscape photography. These themes and trends do not feel incidental to me.

From my vantage point, the reason why I think students find it difficult to articulate their projects is very much related to Brexit. There is so much uncertainly to being a student today. They question the value of their work, they are unsure if they are making good work, they are concerned about their futures and they don’t know how to feel about leaving the EU. It is no wonder they find it difficult to discuss the meaning behind their images. Brexit has formed an invisible backdrop to the contexts surrounding the times by which today’s students are being educated.

LS: Given your position you must of course pay close attention to how the arts are viewed by the wider educational sector, and indeed the government. What does the current climate look like for educating students within creative subjects?

DL: I hope educational establishments continues to allow creative subjects to keep pushing the boundaries of what art is. I worry about the professionalisation of creative courses and just hope we allow students the space to be inquisitive, the time to find their voice, and the freedom to try out new ideas. I go back to the notion of identity and wanting to be understood as a verb rather than a noun. In that sense, I hope our students will develop the kind of inquisitive minds that allows them to be more fluid in the way they operate.

Stephen Fry once said “Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

LS: And finally, as for your personal practice is there anything you are currently working or investigating?

DL: I am developing new work, something autobiographical, delving into my own youth, when I was immersed in black youth culture. I’m looking at developing work connected to reggae and dub music.

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In Conversation With: Lucas Gabellini-Fava

Lucas Gabellini-fava

‘My practice is quite hard to pinpoint. However, recently I have been making work where I explore new technologies and image-making techniques’ Lucas Gabellini-Fava
by Louis Stopforth (9th July 2019)
Lucas Gabellini-Fava (2019) from Programmed by my Father

LS: Firstly, could you tell the readers a little bit about your own practice as well as how you came work alongside Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin? What projects have you worked on with them?

LG-F: My practice is quite hard to pinpoint. However, recently I have been making work where I explore new technologies and image-making techniques. I am currently really interested in photogrammetry and the amazing potential of 3D scanning and printing. My latest work Programmed by my Father involved a deep learning artificial intelligence that learned to create new conversations between my father and I from every conversation that we have had in person in the last year.

My friend was working for [Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin] at the time and had to go and shoot a project in South Korea for a while so he asked me to take over his duties in the studio for a while. He came back and we ended up both sticking around and working alongside each other. This worked really well because we were both also studying full-time. He has now left but I have stayed on, especially to help with Chopped Liver Press. I have worked on a few, but my biggest input was with their new book The Future of Images. It was a huge job and I think that we were all super happy and proud when it was over and printed.

LS: For the last three years, you have worked for Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (Oliver in particular) in their London Studio, whilst also running and managing Chopped Liver Press. I am interested to know how these two work environments operate and how they differ.

LG-F: Chopped Liver Press is an interesting one in terms of the way it works alongside Adam and Oliver’s practice. The Chopped Liver Press studio is housed in the same studio as Oliver’s in London and so we sort of share the space in half. I think that Oliver and I have got into a really good rhythm of working on these two things at once. It is also really important for Chopped Liver Press to live in that environment as the whole project lives and thrives off of what Oliver and Adam are working on at that time or what they are interested in. The prints almost become pages of a diary that mark a certain time in the studio.

LS: The work undertaken at Chopped Liver Press seems to me more therapeutic and instinctive in comparison to the work undertaken at the London space. Is this the case?

LG-F: Definitely. A lot of the time I am working on Chopped Liver Press independently (under the artistic direction of Oliver and Adam) to allow them to work on their collaborative practice, however from time to time we will brew some coffee in the morning and play around. We’ll make frames, discuss ideas and pin stuff up on the walls. Our best conversations always start over coffee and a Chopped Liver Press poster.

LS: In a recent video, Oliver remarks that creating the monthly posters from Chopped Liver Press is a ‘meditative’ process. I feel that all the projects that the duo have produced so far have this quality. The conceptualisation of their work is highly considered. How much of the physicality of the work comes from consideration and how much comes from creative instinct and experimentation?

Chopped Liver Press (2018) Death Always Happens To Other People

LG-F:  This is a difficult question because in terms of a duo I think that both Oliver and Adam have very different personalities and they bring very different things to the table. Ideas seem to stem from books, the news and encounters with people and then it will grow from there. There is no set formula for how the work is made honestly. The conceptualisation is most definitely always highly considered but it always stems from a lot of experimentation and honestly a huge amount of interest in a wide range of different fields. They are both constantly keeping up to date with new technologies, the news and what other artists are doing.

 

 

 

LS: The Joseph Beuys quote ‘Bandage The Knife And Not The Wound’ appears both within the context of posters produced by Chopped Liver Press as well as a project of the same name. How often do the two separate outlets inform the other?

Chopped Liver Press (2018) Bandage the Knife Not The Wound

LG-F: They almost always inform each other in one way or another. Chopped Liver Press is a direct response to everything that happens in the studio and the work that they are making or conceptualising in the month that the poster is released. In a way it is an amalgam of all the most important ideas and quotes that have inspired work that has been made in the Broomberg and Chanarin studios.

LS: Talking of Joseph Beuys, his work was both a spiritual experience as well as a reflection of humanity and modern history. Oliver and Adam’s work share these qualities and additionally operates as an artistic experience. Has this connection to art always been a part of their practice? Even back when work was made in a more typical photojournalistic way, or has this developed when producing work for a gallery context?

LG-F: Oliver and Adam were really at the forefront of what they do, even when they were working together at Colors Magazine. We have a poster up on the door of the studio that states “you don’t take a photography, you make it” – and this is what they have always done. Their work has never been just about the ‘photograph’. I think their work begins with the acceptance that photography is a flawed medium at its core and through this they have found beautiful ways to tame and utilise the photographic to comment on and scrutinise any issues surrounding it.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin (2008) The Day Nobody Died

LS: Also coming from their photojournalistic background, was The Day Nobody Died work as much a deliberation on physical presence in areas of conflict as well as that of photography, censorship and the accuracy of depicting conflict?

LG-F: The Day Nobody Died is one of my absolute favourite works by them. They simply unrolled a six-meter section of photographic paper in response to events that were happening around them during their visit to Afghanistan in the midst of the war in 2008. These were all events a ‘war’ or ‘documentary’ photographer would have recorded photographically, but instead Adam and Oliver created something that was simply a record of the day-to-day during the war but in a completely non-figurative way that removed any visual insight into what was happening. This completely subverted and turned the idea of ‘conflict’ or ‘war’ photography on its head.

LS: Typically, how do Adam and Oliver start their investigations?  For example, does work start from a point driven by their own inspirations or do they feel an obligation to disclose certain issues to the public?

LG-F: FaceTime calls early in the morning, followed by emails with some of us Ccd into and then lots of research. I think people always tend to valorise important artists by trying to understand the ‘formula’ to their work, but I think that any artist that works by the books will quickly fade out of the limelight. Every project starts differently and ends differently, it can be by leaving a certain book on the table before locking up one evening or by watching a YouTube video. The work starts with the relationship that Oliver and Adam share and the way in which they communicate and their beautifully inspiring interest in the world around and its complicated systems and structures.

LS: When it comes to publishing and exhibiting work that utilises found imagery, such as War Primer, are there ever any legal difficulties encountered during this process?

LG-F: Yes, but I know that they always try and be careful. They have run into many issues over the years, especially because a lot of their practice is based on ‘appropriation’ – however they always manage deal with anything that pops up quite valiantly. They try and talk to people and explain themselves and their work, whilst also standing their ground and defending the work that they are making.

LS: Their work consistently questions the photographic medium, its history and its place within society.Is it because of this debate that the work produced – whether this be using found imagery or their own photographic images – can be regarded equally?

LG-F: Yes absolutely, Adam and Oliver work within the ‘photographic’, but I personally wouldn’t necessarily regard them as ‘photographers’. They use the medium as a way of turning a mirror on itself and this functions whether they are the authors of the work or not.

LS: The nature of photography tells both truth and fiction simultaneously; disclosure to a subject is given a moment at a time, but the actions of both the photographer and the context of its presentation can greatly alter its meaning. Adam and Oliver are greatly aware of this and produce work that is both a personal take on a subject as well as an informative one, reflecting the paradoxical nature of photography.  How important is the conclusion of truth in engaging the viewer?

LG-F: (I understand your question here but I’m not too sure how to answer it. We can chat about it a bit if you want, if you send me an example of what you mean. Adam and Olly try and tell the truth through the photographic — which has a long history of skewing the truth. I’m not too sure how truthfulness might further engage a viewer?)

LS: The variation in aesthetic between projects is at times quite extreme and yet each project carries such importance. Is the change in project presentation always what works best for the context or is there a desired evolution of the artists practice? What can we expect to see from projects in the future?

LG-F: You can expect some amazing stuff. We all seem to be fascinated by new technologies at the moment and we are always sending each other PDFs on artificial intelligence and we are talking a lot about space!  Their practice evolves with the times and it always has. I think that is one of the reasons that their work has always and will always feel so fresh and interesting and with this the aesthetics of their work changes, but it will always keep the same foundations.

In Conversation With: Abigail Reynolds

Abigail Reynolds

Abigail Reynolds is a multi-media artist living and working in Cornwall. At the core of her practice is an investigation of both visual imagery and language, often interrogating the relationship between the two. Her work frequently explores the subjects of time and space, the shifting of context in relation to chronology, the artists self, materiality and immateriality.  Her works develop in ever more progressive ways, transforming the past in relation to the present. During this conversation Reynolds and I discuss her projects The Universal Now, Lost Libraries of the Silk Road (2018), Lost Libraries Cabinet (2019) Teaching a Stone to Talk 1988 | 2017, and When Words are Forgotten (2018). The discussion gives an insight into how she considers her work in both its creation and its finalised state. It also sheds light on her perspectives regarding photography, language, conceptual artworks, time, representation in the visual arts and the self within a number of her artworks

‘Art is a visual language, and I use the same tools when I read it as I would in reading a poem or a play’ Abigail Reynolds
by Louis Stopforth (9th October 2019)
Abigail Reynolds (2015) Desert Seeds

LS: Your practice is often concerned with language and the written word. Is it this interest that initially drew you to photography, a visual language that can be communicated beyond dialect?

AR: Art is a visual language, and I use the same tools when I read it as I would in reading a poem or a play. I guess by dialect you mean maybe language ie an English reader can read a photo from China but not a text in Chinese … photography has become a global language but I don’t agree about dialect. There are many nuances in photography that place it in time and space. There’s the approach to subject as well as camera and lens technologies.

LS: A number of your works have been comprised of the endpapers of books, titled by the names of the books they originated from. This work immediately brought to mind the piece ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ by Robert Rauschenberg as it comprises of no physical trace of a ‘thing’ which we might be able to decipher. Instead the work is given its weight through the inclusion of its title. We begin to recognise the importance of this empty piece of paper, and its origins. How do you view the importance of the written word alongside artworks?

‘A title / caption / script can enrich the image or totally undermine it’

AR: The relationship between a visual work and a text is complex. A title / caption / script can enrich the image or totally undermine it. I use the title to carry part of the meaning of the work, but I only give it as much weight as other, visual decisions, such as scale. Some artists use titling very strongly to create a context for a viewer to think within, for others it’s hardly of any importance beyond having a way to list works on a consignment form. ‘An Oak Tree’ by Michael Craig Martin explains this whole mechanism with a concise and riddling brilliance.

Abigail Reynolds (1998/2017) Endpaper from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

LS: ‘Teaching a Stone To Talk 1988 | 2017 is an endpaper that shows the imprint of objects on the papers surface from prolonged exposure to a light source (indeed other endpaper works show changes in tonal range from their aged exposure to light but none so viscerally as this one). This piece is essentially a naturally occurring photogram, an effect that has long occurred prior to photography’s ‘invention’ as a process. Do you yourself view this work as photographic? 

 

 

 

AR: I do, and I like the way it speaks about the action of light and of time very directly. It also happens to suggest a narrative of the reader, an imagination of the possible reader.

LS: In recent photographic history practitioners have explored more and more the materiality of the photograph, as well as exploring society’s preconceived notions of what photography is. During your on-going project: The Universal Now, you yourself repurpose images that had the intention of being objective-documentary images, those that supposedly hold cultural, historical and anthropological value within their intended place and condition. You then transform their physical properties, as well as their purpose. Is there a conversation about society still imbedded within the transformed work, or is it more formalist than that?

Abigail Reynolds (2009) from The Universal Now

AR: In these guide-book photos of monuments the hand of the author is usually minimised. The photos are not offered to view because of the photographer but because of what is photographed. The sense of a social document is very strong in them – like a portrait of society and what it values / what it has valued. In some works a change in camera or print technology between the two photographs is obvious. I enjoy the authority of these images and teasing this out a bit by making their time-bound condition more obvious by contrast.

LS: In your interview for Elephant titled ‘Abigail Reynolds: Cuts in Time’ you mention there being a ‘compression of time’ happening in London due to its architecture. Does this mean because of photography’s ability to only record fragments of time you are making a statement against photographs as singular artefacts within your integrated images; one image from one moment in time simply isn’t enough for representing the continuous change of a landscape?

‘I join the mass of people in feeling that nothing is stable or linear – everything is fluid, fugitive, shifting’

AR: Ah yes time is compressed in London – because you can see multiple layers of time everywhere if you look properly. This just isn’t true in Los Angeles for example. The photographs build on this pre-existing condition by compressing again. Compressing two times or images into one new surface. I understand that this can also be read as a release, but I see it as a compression. I suppose I join the mass of people in feeling that nothing is stable or linear – everything is fluid, fugitive, shifting. That goes for personal identity, city spaces, public or group identity. I like this – I mean, I am not at all afraid of this, and it’s clearly true. I like also the cyclical and repetitive – the return and the echo, as we constantly move, but also often return. Like a dance.

LS: As for the construction of these works, are the forms created by splicing images done for a particular reason – or is it an intuitive process that is informed by the images used and their significance to each other?

AR: I try to listen carefully to the qualities of the photographs both their structure and attitude to the subject, then I make cuts that are finely tuned to the particular qualities that interest me. It only really works, I think, if what I do builds on the formal qualities of what is already present. Otherwise, I am just in the way. I work on images in close up. I focus on the detail, I’m very respectful of the image.

LS: The project Lost Libraries of the Silk Road, is interesting as it tackles the issue of representation in the visual arts, in particular photography and moving image. The subject matter you are exploring is no longer visually present, and therefore impossible to record. In essence, were you documenting a void, an immaterial subject matter that pushes the invisible subjects of politics, conflict, natural disaster, and time to the forefront of the work? 

AR: Yes! Given what I just said about respect for the image, I wanted to flip the playing card and see the other side – no archive, no image even. What would I do then? What will we all do then?

LS: During the course of Lost Libraries the video is narrated by three separate voices. Is this inclusion of narration added to become another descriptor beyond the visual, relieving the camera of being the sole informant for the work? 

AR: I use three voices though to dislocate again the sense of a unified self – but to convey a disparate and fugitive self. When I didn’t have much of an image to interrogate, I found the blankness really acted as a mirror, and I turned to a much more subjective mode. The film is personal, because to be confronted by such enormous swathes of time and space heightened my awareness of how localised my sense of time and history are, how my values and assumptions are so very specific to the place and time in which I happen to be living. The word ‘timeless’ is often applied to art works as a term of praise but of course there is nothing outside time. If we are given the timeless we would not know what to do with it.

‘The word ‘timeless’ is often applied to art works as a term of praise but of course there is nothing outside time. If we are given the timeless we would not know what to do with it’

LS: Compared to previous work that would be undertaken in your studio, where you could control and deliberate on the work you produce, how was it operating as a travelling artist for the Lost Libraries project, where often moments can be fleeting and out of your control?

AR: I am as likely to be bewildered in my studio as I am on the road, funnily enough. I don’t always feel in control of it. In fact, I really enjoy moments when I don’t seem to be very much in control and feel as though I am being led, rather blindly.

LS: Alongside the film appears Lost Libraries Cabinet, which acts as a physical manifestation of an otherwise intangible film.  Is the inclusion of physicality within your work a way to give tangibility to subject?

AR: The unique aspect of visual art is that it is seen in real space and time. This makes it physical tactile, more fully present. So for me the confrontation is more direct. A film-maker recently said to me ‘you can’t understand things unless you can hear them’ – maybe it’s like that. Maybe it’s giving more voice to the form, and more form to the image. More layers, more opportunities to engage with the same thought but approached from slightly different angles.

LS: ‘When Words are Forgotten’ represents the lost literature of the libraries you visited whilst capturing the individuality of texts, represented in differing colours, shapes, and textures of acrylic and glass. The transparency of these materials reiterates how these books are physically un-attainable and appear almost more like ghosts from a bygone era, haunting our social memory. Do you think there is a comparison to be made between this body of work and photographs as recorded moments of time past?

AR: Often it is the case that while I’m making a new work, the full scope of connections with the new work and existing work is not clear to me until much later. This rather like post-rationalisation; a term used to explain that artists work intuitively, but once thoughts and feelings are resolved into a finished work, the rationale suddenly becomes clear – but only after the fact. I find this very often in making formal as well as conceptual decisions. Anyway, because of the work I am making now as opposed to at the time of ‘When Words are Forgotten’, about 18 months ago, or maybe because that work exists and is very present to me, I see the glass sheets like the skeletons of leaves or yes ghosts, some energy or structure that persists though the flesh has gone. Now I am very directly working with facsimiles of The Book of the Dead, and considering river crossing and the Daguerreotype, an early photograph on mirror. Making art is inexorably pressing forward into new terrain, which means the angle of view onto the past is altered constantly.

LS: Finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?

AR: I am now working with the collection at The Harris – which is a museum / library / public gallery in Preston. Ways of working that interested me having made the Lost Libraries installation are my starting point. I will deeply interrogate a small selection of books and photographs, both in film, so that the surfaces can be seen up close, as detailed and sumptuous as when I hold them, and also by displaying them in a cabinet of glass – so the look of the audience is simultaneously made more complex by the distorting sheets of glass, and more direct by the film. I’m really enjoying the process. The work will be on display in The Harris from 14 February 2020.