Monthly Archives: January 2016

Aura Satz

Based on an interview with Aura Satz, this piece appeared in “500 Words” on artforum.com:

Aura Satz, Between the Bullet and the Hole, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 35 seconds.

Spanning film, sound, performance, and sculpture, Aura Satz’s historically anchored projects often celebrate the achievements and inventions of women. “Her Marks, a Measure,” Satz’s solo exhibition at Dallas Contemporary, presents two recent works—the dual slide projector installation Her Luminous Distance, 2014, and the film Between the Bullet and the Hole, 2015—which focus on women who compiled data as so-called human computers, enabling advances in astronomy and ballistics, respectively. The show is on view from January 17 through March 20, 2016.

ALL MY WORKS explore diagrams and traces; these become abstractions of presence. My previous projects looked at traces of voices, sound inscriptions, and writing techniques. I am primarily interested in traces that look nothing like their source and that give materiality to what is ultimately immaterial or imperceptible.

Between the Bullet and the Hole came about after I found some amazing images of bullet sound waves and early experiments in what’s called Schlieren photography in a book by Dayton Clarence Miller titled Sound Waves: Their Shape and Speed from 1937. As I started looking into ways in which ballistics are abstracted in diagrammatic form, I came across forensic examinations of microscopic scratches on bullets, markings made by the barrel of a gun, as well as other traces that can be read forensically.

The film takes as its starting point the role of women studying ballistics during World War II and their remarkable contribution to early computer programming. What they were doing was interpolating the trajectory between the bullet and its target based on data from firing tables. Between the Bullet and the Hole is in itself an act of interpolation between images of bullets and holes, punch cards and computer diagrams, rulers and sound waves of explosions featured in the film. The work challenges the viewer to question how one might decipher such data and take in the indigestible forensic aftermath of violence.

Her Luminous Distance is a companion piece about a group of women astronomers, also known as “human computers.” Beginning in the 1890s and well into the 1920s, they worked at Harvard University on painstaking astronomical observation and classification, mapping the stars and calculating their positions. Women who were good at math were brought in to do this work. But it was considered a somewhat tedious clerical job, and although some made significant scientific discoveries that led to publications, they were essentially conduits for data to be collected and stored.

The task of all these women was to measure. That was their primary role, their labor: measuring the distance of the stars to the earth, between a bullet’s starting point and end point. In doing so, they were also making their mark in history by contributing to astronomical discoveries as much as computer programming.

Many of the works I’ve made about women and technology are concerned with putting them on the map, making them visible. In Her Luminous Distance, I included slides of craters on the moon named after women astronomers, which are quite small and, for the most part, on the dark side of the moon. One of them is called Leavitt, after the deaf astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt who discovered that some stars have a variable light instead of a regular pulse. The fact that she was looking at variable stars and the idea of women’s names being associated with imperceptible craters on the moon seemed an apt metaphor for women having a moment of slight visibility and then receding in the distance of history.

For these two projects I wanted to use the language of a blink comparator to try to reenact the kind of looking that these women were doing. A blink comparator is a perceptual device that enabled astronomers to spot tiny differences between photographic plates by putting them on top of each other and making them blink. Her Luminous Distance is not quite a film; it’s two static frames flickering in a dual slide projector installation with a shutter that creates a blinking effect. Likewise, the images in the Between the Bullet and the Hole appear like a Ping-Pong game: They flash back and forth, side to side, making your eyes look harder. Similarly I wanted the sound (composed by Scanner) to be constantly rattling, like metal striking another metal, a ricochet sound.

The title of the show, “Her Marks, A Measure,” is a play on words. I think of the film on ballistics particularly as being about people whose job it was to measure, but for me it’s also a measure against a certain impulsive acceleration of violence. There needs to be a space for thinking about and measuring the impact of gun culture.

Live Cinema

This piece on Guy Sherwin’s and Lynn Loo’s ‘Live Cinema’ event at DRAF Studio appeared on thequietus.com:

By the time I reached the David Roberts Art Foundation, tucked away off Camden High Street, the projection of Guy Sherwin’s 1973/2003 Camden Road Station at DRAF Studio had just ended and there was a lull in proceedings. Located above the main gallery rooms, DRAF’s “dedicated live projects space” opened back in September; this was my first visit.

Dimly lit in between the live projections, the bare industrial loft with its wooden rafters, painted brick walls, some benches and blankets spread out on the floor for the audience to sit on, felt cozy, somehow, and more like a barn than a cinema. In small groups, people – most of them quite young – chatted and whiled time away, drinking beer provided by our hosts, as Sherwin and his partner Lynn Loo busied themselves setting things up for the next screening.

The five minutes we were told it would take them turned to ten. On one of the small benches besides the projectors Sherwin was manning, I spotted an artist-filmmaker I knew who said this was the best vantage from which to view and – more to the point – hear the live projections, according to the artists, so I opted to sit there rather than on the comfy-looking blankets. The character of a live cinema piece, as Sherwin himself later explained to me, will subtly change depending on the shape of the projection room and its acoustics, but equally on where in the room one happens to be seated.

One of five 16mm films – all between 9 and 12-minutes-long – selected for the evening’s programme, Camden Road Station was originally intended as a single projector film, like many of the films Sherwin made in the 1970s. But it was never shown that way. When Sherwin revisited the unfinished silent black-and-white and colour film in 2003, thirty years later, he reworked the materials to show them on three 16mm projectors. This method, which complicates the viewing experience as it is impossible to watch all the screens at once, is favoured by Sherwin and Loo who usually perform their multi-projector films in tandem. If Sherwin’s work is shown, Loo performs the sound and does the projection, and vice versa.

“Incidentally,” says Sherwin, “I do not regard Camden Road Station as a ‘performance,’ since once set up the projectors run themselves. But I do regard it as an example of ‘live cinema’ as no two screenings are exactly the same, and [apart from a 2010–11 screening on four digital projectors made to fill a shop window in Oslo], it is always shown on 16mm and in the presence of the artist.’

Whenever Sherwin and Loo put together a programme, they seek to contrast and find a balance between abstract films, such as Loo’s camera-less End Rolls (2009) with its fluctuating colour fields shown at the start of the evening, and figurative ones like Camden Road Station, which uses filmed footage of passengers alighting from and waiting for trains at the nearby station.

The latter piece was chosen partly due to the station’s geographical proximity with DRAF, but also because of the connection with another of Sherwin’s “train films” included in the programme, Soundtrack Augmented (1977/2013), in which the railway tracks shot from a moving train are converted into optical sounds, and the way certain architectural features of the loft – the brick wall, buttresses, exposed gas pipes – reflected the construction of the station itself, built at about the same time.

Aside from its deliberately unrehearsed and improvised character, what makes this type of cinema “live” is precisely how each piece responds to and is altered by its immediate surroundings. For their performance at DRAF, Sherwin and Loo worked closely with the architecture of the studio, projecting the films onto the buttresses and into the recesses on the side wall as well as on the ceiling and the wooden rafters, in the case of Sound Cuts (2007/2015), which does away with the traditional projection format altogether. As the title suggests, the work was made by cutting up a filmstrip (right through to the edge where optical sound appears as sound frequencies) with a splicer, before rejoining it. The resulting image is itself splintered and fragmented.

The audience facing the side wall at the studio watched the angled flashes of white light of increasing frequency sent out into the dark space like code or blazing comets, occasionally crossing a beam in their wake, each followed in rhythmic succession by a corresponding thud. Sound Cuts has been screened using anywhere between three (on this occasion) and six projectors. “There is no definitive version of the work,” Sherwin explains, “just multiple possibilities, which is how we like it.”

Sound is an integral part of Loo and Sherwin’s collaborative performances, from the whirr of projectors to the optical sound that appears both on the filmstrip and as a sound-reproducing system fitted into the projectors, generating sound from fluctuations of projected light. As a useful analogy for optical sound, Sherwin suggested I “think of a gramophone needle responding to the grooves in a vinyl record. Substitute fluctuations of light for physical fluctuations of the needle – and you have optical sound.” You could talk of ‘performing sound’, in so far as the synchronized soundtrack is fed through a mixer, making it possible to continually adjust the relative as well as the overall volume and timber of each track while the film is running.

Works such as Soundtrack Augmented, adapted for two projectors from the original 1977 Soundtrack film, have been screened alongside live music by the improv group Cranc at Café OTO in 2013 and by Loo playing guitar (though not, strictly speaking, a guitarist) in a performance at the ICA in 2014. What made the DRAF Studio version different still were the obliquely-angled projectors, aiming to offset the uneven and unusually long side wall with its buttresses and recesses. In conjunction with the use of anamorphic lenses this made for a curiously distorted, elongated image of the train tracks, funneling out so that the gap between the railway tracks widened progressively the further it extended inside the room, occasionally interrupted by dark intervals or crisscrossed by a matching yet inverted rail pattern in a smaller and more bounded rectangular projection.

For Cycles #3 (2003), bringing the evening’s programme to a close, the audience was asked to move further down inside the room as the piece was going to be projected on the end wall of the studio. This had the advantage of framing and containing the image of the circle within a circle made with paper dots and holes that had been punched directly into the filmstrip in this handmade film, repurposing materials from 1972 when Sherwin started experimenting with 16mm film.

Although the piece has been performed many times since 2003, on two projectors with an amber-coloured filter placed over one of them, on this occasion Sherwin and Loo decided to rest the projectors on their sides in order to produce a vertical image adapted to the narrow end wall. Like the railway tracks in Soundtrack Augmented, here the dots and holes reproduced on the optical sound edge of the filmstrip made up the soundtrack of the film projected by two loudspeakers. The droning sound rose to a steady pitch or thud as the frequency of the flickering dots increased, in a visual and aural equivalent of a punch.

Qwaypurlake

This Critics’ Pick on “Qwaypurlake” at Hauser & Wirth Somerset appeared on artforum.com:

View of “Qwaypurlake,” 2015–16.

The mix of science fiction, archaeology, and magic in this varied group show makes for a lethal cocktail, bound to leave visitors feeling somewhat queasy. At the outset, David Wojtowycz’s looping video installation The Lake, 2012—the only moving-image work on view—presents a pier stretching out toward the horizon, a lurid pink at both ends, as if lit up by twin setting suns. The unnaturally still and ruffled aspect of the water adds to the sense of the uncanny, compounded by a disquieting sound track that permeates the adjacent rooms.

Bringing together mostly British artists with some connection to Somerset and the neighboring counties, “Qwaypurlake” mines England’s magical hinterland with its enchanted forests, glades, moors, and legends. Its otherworldly qualities are captured in James Ravilious’s ravishing small black-and-white photographs of north Devon and Jem Southam’s two large-scale color C-prints of oval ponds set in a bleak wintry landscape, and they’re hinted at in the exquisite stoneware works by ceramicist Hans Coper: the chalice-like Vessel, ca. 1965, and its companion piece Small Cycladic Arrow Form, ca. 1972.

Simon Morrissey’s overall curatorial conceit reimagines Somerset and its boggy marshlands, subject to frequent flooding, as a lost Atlantis of sorts in an unspecified, postapocalyptic future. In this scenario, the sculptural objects, ceramics, photographs, and paintings displayed across the four gallery spaces become physical and material traces of an ancient civilization, there for us to piece together and decipher.

Katrina Palmer

This feature on Katrina Palmer appeared in a data-themed issue of Metropolis M in Dutch translation:

imageKatrina Palmer, End Matter, 2015, installation view

Part of Tate Britain’s Art Now series, The Weight of Data (18 May–25 October 2015) styled itself as ‘a sculpture show largely devoid of objects’ bringing together works by four emerging UK-based artists – Eloise Hawser, Katrina Palmer, Charlotte Prodger and Yuri Pattison – whose practice straddles ‘the virtual and physical dimension’. Born in 1967, which makes her the oldest of this new crop of artists, Palmer did not go to art school until her mid-30s. Rooted in language and writing, Palmer’s deeply original approach to sculpture, her chosen medium, reflects her unusual trajectory and way into art making.

Palmer studied literature and philosophy, before working in publishing at Penguin for about a decade. Throughout that time, she took evening classes in sculpture and made small figures and objects out of plasticine. One of her tutors encouraged her to apply to art college, using this body of clay work as a portfolio. She got into Central Saint Martins and went on to do an MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, followed by a practice-based PhD under the joint supervision of Keith Wilson and filmmaker Elizabeth Price, who selected Palmer for ArtReview’s ‘FutureGreats’ in 2013, shortly after winning the 2012 Turner Prize. This proved prescient: Palmer’s career took off that very year with group and solo exhibitions at, among other, Chisenhale Gallery and MOT International, culminating in her project being one of two chosen from among 1,500 proposals for the prestigious Artangel and BBC Radio 4’s Open commission.

The product of the resulting residency on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, Palmer’s most significant project to date, which came to fruition in 2015, took the threefold form of ‘The Loss Adjusters’, an installation and an audio walk staged on the Isle of Portland, open to the public from 28 April to 30 August; ‘The Quarryman’s Daughters’, a BBC Radio 4 broadcast aired late at night on 5 May; and End Matter, a book of related writing and black-and-white photographs taken during the residency on Portland, which was published by Book Works like Palmer’s two previous works of fiction, The Dark Object (2010) and The Fabricator’s Tale (2014).

Whereas her first two published books are collections of short stories and texts, some of which had been recorded and read live by Palmer, usually in a gallery setting, the artist considers the Artangel/BBC Radio 4 production to be ‘a whole work with one installation, one walk, one book’. Written and spoken word is only a part of it, albeit an important one. The compelling nature of the work owes much to its setting on the Isle of Portland, an eerie landscape carved out and burrowed into by generations of quarrymen; a place of confinement whose prison, a young offenders’ institution, provided labour for the quarries; a land’s end connected to the fossil-rich Jurassic Coast of Dorset by an impassable shingle isthmus, Chesil Beach. Portland’s odd, hollowed out landscape is eminently well-suited to express the artist’s sculptural concerns with voids and holes, negative space, materiality, balance, texture.

The best way to experience the piece was in situ. Those who made it out to Easton on the Isle of Portland were handed out a map of the walk and an MP3 player, along with instructions on where to start playing the three separate tracks, each between ten- and thirteen-minutes long, featuring narrative fragments of the text written by Palmer in the course of her residency in Portland read out by professional actors and the soft-spoken artist herself and accompanied by a composite soundtrack of field recordings, occasional strains of melodramatic music and archival sounds of quarrymen singing as they work. Much of this was lost to the wind and the sheer excitement of the walk, which took visitors from a musty, dimly lit and minimally furnished office space on Easton High Street out into open fields strewn with boulders and down narrow paths going past decommissioned quarries and through a grave yard, all skillfully woven into the narrative.

For Palmer, writing is a form of making. Although she continued to make things in the traditional sense all through her BA and MA, it was at the Royal College of Art that she gradually developed a method of working that made sculpture a language-based enquiry. For her MA thesis, she wrote a story embedded in the dissertation: a violent cartoon featuring Slavoj Žižek, who returns as a character in The Dark Object. Much of it was written in Palmer’s studio at the RCA, which she used chiefly for writing, having furnished it with found objects lying about the college to insulate herself from the surrounding noise and activity. Like Palmer, Addison Cole (whose gender is never specified) – the protagonist of the story and the only student in The School of Sculpture Without Objects – is locked in his or her studio ‘constructing a space to write in, or writing a space to make in’ and pondering ‘the relationship between sculpture and fiction in the work of artists like Kabakov, Elmgreen and Dragset who have built architectonic structures and realized fantastical worlds, deploying objects to elaborate scenarios, narratives and characterizations.’[1]

Palmer’s wider practice, in which stories are presented within complex installations, has affinities not only with that of Ilya Kabakov and the Scandinavian artist duo but also with Mike Nelson’s spatialisation of storytelling. ‘There’s a darkness to his work that I enjoy as well,’ says Palmer. Lawrence Weiner’s use of language as a sculptural medium is a precedent to her own, although it takes the form of gnomic statements, unlike Palmer’s more extended fictional narratives. When it comes to fiction, Paul McCarthy’s Remainder (2006), one of Palmer’s favourite novels, offers the closest parallel to her work. The narrator, who suffers from partial memory loss following a mysterious accident, engages in meticulous reenactments of half-remembered scenes and interiors from his past. To Palmer, these are so many ‘sculptural installations in the form of a novel’.

End Matter alludes in passing to another Book Works publication, The Stumbling Block, Its Index (1990) written by Brian Catling, a fellow colleague at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, where Palmer herself teaches. A prose poem attempting to describe an elusive object in a series of definitions, the book exists only as ‘its index’, not unlike End Matter, which is entirely made up of what in editorial jargon tends to be referred to as ‘end matter’: postscripts, afterwords, appendices, addenda, and the like. These marginalia are the bookish equivalent of negative space in sculpture.

Archival matter and bureaucrats people Palmer’s stories, starting with the ‘ideal syllabus’ of books that have shaped her, which she drafted for frieze magazine. The discussion of Nikolay Gogol’s short story ‘The Overcoat’ with its shady protagonist Akakiev Akakievitch Bashmachkin – an insignificant scribe who leads a monk-like existence, copying manuscripts – threads its way through the essay.[2] The Dark Object, reflecting Palmer’s experience of and troubled relationship with academia, comprises chapters given to a ‘Mission Statement’, an ‘Abstract’, an ‘Internal Memorandum’, ‘The Diagram’, three different versions of a ‘Rooms and Furnishings Inspection Report’.

If the Fabricator in The Fabricator’s Tale, also known as the Heart Beast, obsessively gathers information about his prey in order to control her, the character of Reality Flickers, as portrayed in the story that bears her name, is prone to collecting rubbish from skips and compiling ‘multitudinous pages of private notes about these things’.[3] Reality Flickers: Writing of Imagined Objects is, incidentally, the title of Palmer’s doctoral thesis, in which she explores the idea that sculpture moves in and out of everyday reality: an ordinary chair thus becomes an artwork the moment it is pulled into a gallery.

Written during a residency at John Leyton’s Flat Time House in South London, in 2014, ‘Dr Sinclair’s Drawer’, a key short story in The Fabricator’s Tale, inventories in turn the imagined and the actual contents of a desk drawer, objects that belonged to Leyton and form part of his archive. While Palmer is interested in how one produces and sustains objects in the mind, which she considers to be a sculptural activity in its own right, her installations stimulate encounters with real things. For the book launch, which took place in October 2014 at Flat Time House, she built a wall across the exhibition space that hid it from view, apart from a tiny slit through which visitors could see a table and chairs while listening to extracts from the story read out by the author in a recording. This contrived set up was designed to make them feel as intruders in a private space.

Meticulous research informs Palmer’s way of working as an artist: ‘I cast my net really wide and spend a long time looking everywhere until I’m overwhelmed with information, until I find something that’s a catalyst and a springboard to tell a story’. In the case of the Artangel/BBC Radio 4 commission, Palmer hit upon the central conceit of the story when, looking around for somewhere to write on Portland, she found an empty office space looking onto the main street in the village of Easton and was told that it used to house insurance brokers. She moved into the flat above it and started researching the subject. As soon as she thought of loss adjustment, a branch of insurance that investigates complicated damage claims to work out how much clients are owed based on the loss incurred, everything fell into place.

Staged on the drab premises of the former insurance office, above which Palmer lived and where she completed much of her writing for the project, Part I of the audio tour titled ‘The Loss Adjusters’ gives an insight into the collective mores and motivations of this ghostly fraternity, further elaborated on in the introductory section (‘Outro’) of End Matter: ‘The manner in which they interpret loss adjustment is, at the outset, bureaucratic. Crucially, however, the more experienced Adjusters are expected to elaborate on their findings, to expand their frame of reference into a para-academic arena. From there they venture towards quasi-metaphysical speculation.’[4] A team of no less than five dedicated Loss Adjusters, male and female, gathers evidence and attempts to address, conceptually as well as physically, losses suffered through the relentless quarrying of Portland stone, favoured by architects around the country but above all in the capital, whose finest buildings were fashioned out of the grey-white limestone extracted from its quarries.

[1] Katrina Palmer, The Dark Object, London: Book Works (2010), p. 11

[2] Issue 164 (June–August 2014)

[3] Katrina Palmer, The Fabricator’s Tale, London: Book Works (2014), p. 175

[4] Katrina Palmer, End Matter, London: Artangel/Book Works (2015), p. 6