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Breach: Tracy Staunton and Fiona Woods in conversation

Tracy Staunton and Fiona Woods discuss Breach, their MA degree exhibition, September 09, The Joinery, Dublin.

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FW; I found it really interesting that although we had not discussed it or planned it as such, the contrasts and overlaps between our working methods and ideas seemed to be very successful in terms of exhibiting the work. I'm thinking particularly of the very clean, minimal ephemeral quality of your work in contrast to the brute materiality of mine! Did you feel that there were any areas of overlap between the very different projects that we exhibited?

TS; Yes, and on a number of levels. First off, I have been looking at and thinking about space and architecture and its relationship (or non-relationship) to the body. Your structure seemed to me to be like a reflection of your own body for a few reasons: you built it on your own, with your own body, you designed it by yourself with reference to your body. Somehow it had your scale and proportion, your imprint was on it. It was like the first shelter, designed without particular reference to architectural methods or styles. This for me was its charm. In my own work, I was playing with the idea that we experience space, with its residue of the past, with our bodies. Our bodies understand space because we make space in the likeness of our bodies. Anthony Vidler writes about architecture and the body in 'The Architectural Uncanny'.

FW; The uncanny is key I think to what’s fascinating about your work. The works that you showed in Breach - the drawings, the videos, the text and the work on screens - read very much as a single work, whilst maintaining a strong presence as individual elements. I know that central to the work was this idea of ‘a score’ – not just a choreography in space but a score, implying an organisation of sound as well. The three projected videos in particular I found to be almost like a John Cage composition – every sound was emphasised by every silence and vice versa. Are you familiar with much of Cage’s work?

TS; I’m very interested in the relationship between sound and space. It seems to me that in space, buildings (like your structure) are visible, tangible, material. Between and behind their physical bulk, permeating it, lies a musical idea of organisation, or composition. It is the invisible to the visible materiality of space. It comprises the past, the memory of space, its mind. I fancy the invisible of space, what I call the house-mind, can almost be heard. It resonates in the body, I think it’s heard by the whole body somehow.

If there is anything uncanny about your work it would seem to me to be that familiarity, or resemblance to the scale of the body of your structure. In some of the images the structure is half submerged/buried in the sea, or washed up on the strand like a secret come back to haunt. Was there anything of the uncanny about your intention?

FW; What was genuinely uncanny in Folly is that it was constructed entirely with materials left over from the building of my house, so to drown them in the sea (as such) was deeply disconcerting for me and was personally a very unheimlich experience! However, I don't think that domestic aspect was overt in the work and I can't really tell whether the experience of going inside the structure (in the gallery), knowing that it had been under the sea, was disconcerting for an audience.

I did try to capture in the photographs the sheer magnitude of the volume of water which is something I personally find quite terrifying, but I don't think that the uncanny was part of that particular visual experience for the audience. If anything, the response that I got from it was that it was really sad - people seem to read the object in the photographs as a kind of vulnerable animal, which I really like, given that an underlying theme of the work is reworking the boundary between human and non-human life!

Going back to the idea of the score in relation to your construction of Breaking Worlds, I'm really interested to hear more about your interest in and experience of sound and space, and how you arrived at the idea of the score. I remember you speaking previously about the house-mind, and of course that's particularly evident in the work that you did in the James' Gate House. In Breaking Worlds that house-mind seems to have been extended into a collective mind, achieved through the simultaneous presentation of different sites, different places. Combined with the sound of the footsteps there is a strong feeling of listening to a chorus as in the prelude to a Greek drama.

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TS; There is a collective aspect to the mind or memory of the spaces I termed heterochronic (after Foucault) in Breaking Worlds. The memory of the space is like the sum of all of the memories; the memories of the users, inhabitants, passers-by. It is all of the little histories. I suppose it is a cultural memory. I have related it to architectural design and space because the design of space, the articulation of materials, the proportioning, the rhythm of positive and negative in a building is related to the /mind /of the time that produces it. The juxtaposition of videos and sounds in the gallery space was like the juxtaposition of spaces//times/ in the city. There is an element of chance about it (reminiscent of John Cage).

I felt there was overlapping of ideas or concerns or maybe only words, in what you referred to at some stage as a ‘clearing’ or ‘zone of indetermination’ and what I termed a gap or ‘wound’. I was referring to time and you (I think) to the abovementioned boundary between human and non-human life. I think it was very interesting that there were points where the practices seemed to meet, but then diverge completely.

FW; It was very fortunate that you pointed out that linguistic overlap when we were looking for a title, because I thought Breach captured something quite apt in both of our practices. It helped me to think about a particular aspect of what I was doing. The idea of the boundary between human and non-human life is a way for me to explore questions I have about change. I have spent a lot of this MA trying to think how change can come about and what role, if any, art can play in that. Coming across the idea of the theory of emergence (which is related to chaos and systems theory) allowed me to think about change as something that can break through from below, a breach in the existing order. That led me in turn to thinking about art’s capacity to function as an instrument of the reconfiguration of subjectivity, which is necessary for any real change to occur. So in that sense, the idea of Breach was very useful for me, and especially as a way to link together the two seemingly quite different works Folly and Boundary.

In relation to your work, I also thought that Breach captured very well that Bergson-ian account of time that I find underpinning a lot of your work. Heterochronic is an idea that I really like – that idea of multiple, overlapping temporalities is something I was interested in when I was writing the article about Kabakov and modernism or rather multiple and counter-modernisms.

I thought the concept was articulated really well in Breaking Worlds; the rhythm and cadence of the walkers had a strongly affective role on my perception, as a viewer, of the temporality of the spaces through which they were moving. The choreography of walkers, the score that they were elaborating, effected a breach in temporality which is partly, I think, what draws out that sense of the uncanny in your work.

TS; It’s very gratifying to hear that you understand the works as I intended when I made them. I have always found that this is something that can’t be depended upon. Often I have found that viewers have liked work for reasons that I can’t empathise with and this is very disconcerting. I’ve come to think that this lack of control or letting go of control is related in some way to the capacity of art to change….something. Maybe just my preconceptions!

I’m particularly interested to hear what reactions you got from viewers to Boundary, the billboard works. It seems to me that because of the subject matter and the medium, there was huge room for misunderstanding in these works. Did you find this and would it bother you if you did?

FW; Well- of course I have no idea how the general public reacted to that work. I spoke to a number of ‘art’ people who saw it before they knew that it was artwork and their response was generally very positive; they found the images edgy and puzzling because despite being placed in a context associated with the 'visual economy', where you would expect messages related to consumption and the process of commodification, there was no attempt in Boundary to spell out a function for the image or even to suggest where it came from. The people I spoke to found that kind of intriguing, which of course is exactly the kind of response I would like, but whether that sort of response is limited to people who are accustomed to ‘reading’ visual material I don’t know.

I think that’s one of the attractions and frustrations of working in the public sphere – you often don’t know how or even whether, people read the work. In a funny way, I find the lack of feedback about work in the public realm less troublesome than a lack of feedback on work placed in a gallery situation. I end up feeling sorely aware that it is cordoned off from the lifeworld and wondering why I would want to do that!!!

How important is audience to you, as an artist?

TS; I would say it is very important but I’ve come to accept that people perceive and assess work in their own time; that is, sometimes you get a reaction to an exhibition a couple of years later or in some other unexpected way. I think we both agreed at some stage that we preferred a reaction of violent dislike than polite indifference. Generally I’m happy if one person saw the work. I think you throw the work out there and then it’s no longer yours; you let it go.

To go back to what you said about emergence; the idea that change breaks through from beneath. I’m intrigued by the image of bubbles under the surface of work; of an underground spring waiting for an outlet. If art is the outlet, is the artist fully aware of the nature of the force unleashed? Somehow what is most powerful about art is un-nameable. The fact that your billboards were inexplicable, made them very strong, particularly as one expects a caption or an explanation in such a situation. If not in words, then in some other way. I found them very successful, particularly the one sited in the farthest, bleakest most mundane place (Cabra, Blackhorse Ave). They refused to make sense, they didn’t offer any answers; they were like question marks.

I think that art can be instrumental in bringing abut change but I wonder if it might not be exactly the change foreseen or hoped for by the artist!

FW; Absolutely. For one thing, WJT Mitchell said that the avant-garde is always, in the end, just the R&D arm of the Culture Industry. Pretty bleak thought really. Whether we like it or not, what we do feeds into the visual economy and eventually becomes part of how things are sold back to us.

But I think that we have to do something, we have to keep believing in the possibility of change and of art having some role in that, because otherwise what do we do? I suppose it's a certain Utopian thinking that surfaces every so often during modernism (and I don't really see post-modernism as anything more than a symptom of modernism, not really a radical break).

Utopia is very fashionable again at the moment – lots of curatorial investigations of Utopian thinking. I have to say that I really hate the way that curatorial ‘fads’ cheapen ideas and turn them into themes. If there's one thing I feel strongly having gone through the MA it's how much I hate most contemporary forms of curating; it seems so much like the culture industry getting its foot strongly in the door of art-making.

TS; I think we both had a pretty strong reaction to contemporary models of curating. I particularly hate the way it seems to make of (some) art and art people a completely hermetic little world. Quite utopian in its own way actually, or maybe heterotopian… I think some of the modules on the course did manage to delve into interesting material though; I think I will be returning to some of the readings at a later stage.

FW; For sure – I feel much better equipped theoretically.


Posted by: Declan Long on Oct 18, 09 | 8:47 pm | Profile

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