Double Take: Izolyatsia and Pinchuk Art Centre

This feature on the Pinchuk Art Centre and Izolyatsia, two Kyiv-based non-profits, appeared in The Calvert Journal:

  • Izolyatsia 2

    Izolyatsia in its new Kiev Shipyards site. Image: Dima Sergeev

No one has done more in recent years to put Ukrainian contemporary art on the map than the PinchukArtCentre and IZOLYATSIA. On the face of it, these two private institutions established by well-connected and generally well-liked industrialists – Victor Pinchuk and Luba Michailova – have a lot in common. Built around their founders’ personal collections, each in its own way nurtures the local art scene and attempts to build an audience for contemporary art at home, while giving Ukrainian artists greater international visibility and creating opportunities to show their work abroad.

This was not always the case – at least not as far as local artists are concerned. “The PinchukArtCentre has started to change its position but before it was not interested at all in the Ukrainian art scene. It was this huge institution built by a rich guy to show only stars from the West,” says Crimean-born artist and activist Mariia Kulykivska, who has worked with both institutions and is in a good position to compare them. To her mind, “IZOLYATSIA is a less established and glamorous place, closer to the real people”. Although IZOLYATSIA is not immune to the allure of superstars either, in Kulykivska’s opinion, “it started showing Ukrainian artists sooner”.

As well as teaching at the PinchukArtCentre, in 2013 Kulykivska was nominated for the sought-after Pinchuk Art Prize. Alternating with the more prestigious international Future Generation Prize (and a fraction of its monetary value), the bi-yearly national prize was set up in 2009 as part of a “changing strategy” designed to offer “consistent support for developing an art scene”, in the words of the PinchukArtCentre’s deputy artistic director Björn Geldhof. In addition to covering the production costs for new work, the prize gives the twenty nominees exposure and curatorial support in the context of the Pinchuk Art Prize show. The winner is also automatically short-listed for the Future Generation Prize the following year.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the PinchukArtCentre blazed a trail. The museum owes some of its iconic status to the fact that it was the only space dedicated to contemporary art in the whole of Ukraine, before IZOLYATSIA opened its doors to the public in 2010 – not in Kyiv but in Donetsk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine – and long before the Euromaidan protests of 2013, which stimulated the growth of self-sustained organizations and grass-root initiatives that offered an alternative to both these platforms for aspiring Ukrainian artists.

“It was the PinchukArtCenter who started this project; people know Ukraine in contemporary art through the Pinchuk,” Michailova concedes in a Skype interview. “At a certain point it became clear that he took a capitalist approach of capitalizing your private love for art, which is fine. Every country has to have ten more Pinchuks. We tried to build a different platform.”

The difference between these two rival institutions is partly one of style. If both non-profits are open to visitors free of charge, the PinchukArtCentre’s well-attended openings are by invitation only and have an aura of VIP exclusivity about them. Spread over six floors with an elegant café at the top, boasting stunning views of the city, the Philippe Chiambaretta-redesigned complex in the central Besarabka area of Kyiv looks and feels like a white cube. Given that many of the artists who form the basis of the oligarch’s collection – from Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons to Takashi Murakami and Anthony Gormley – are represented by Larry Gagosian and Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, this seems fitting.

IZOYLYATSIA has none of the “luxury-style exhibitions, [nor] the pretension” of its counterpart, as Kulykivska puts it. The rented four-storey building situated on the premises of a working shipyard next to the river, in the increasingly trendy but still somewhat peripheral Podol neighbourhood, retains something of the gritty feel and working class aesthetic of IZOLYATSIA’s original, sprawling factory home in the industrial city of Donetsk, where Michailova hails from.

Set up in a disused insulation materials plant that her father Ivan Michailov directed, IZOLYATSIA was inspired by Zollverein in Essen, a repurposed Bauhaus-style coal mine in the Ruhr area that Michailova visited in 2010, the year when Essen was the cultural capital of Europe. “I saw what my Donetsk could be in twenty years, when people breathe new life into industrial heritage,” says Michailova. She considers the preservation of the country’s Soviet-era heritage an integral part of IZOLYATSIA’s mission, together with creating an infrastructure for art making and educating the public about twentieth and twenty-first-century art, which are not taught at school.

Michailova, who developed her taste for contemporary art while visiting museums around the world on business trips, started collecting social realist art in the 1990s in an attempt to preserve it after the fall of communism. This became the core of IZOLYATSIA’s collection, which grew organically to include works made by international and Ukrainian artists in the context of residencies and for specific exhibitions staged at IZOLYATSIA, such as the 2012 show “Gender” for which Kulykivska fashioned twenty life-sized plaster clones of her body; three additional soap-based casts made at a later date were left to slowly dissolve in IZOLYATSIA’s garden.

When IZOLYATSIA’s premises were seized by armed pro-Russian separatists in June 2014, these were used as shooting targets by the militiamen, who destroyed many of the artworks that they considered to be “degenerate”. “I’m still not over the shock of losing most of my collection,” confides Michailova, who estimates the loss at about two-thirds. What could be salvaged was moved to Kyiv along with the staff, ushering in a new period of “IZOLYATSIA in exile”. As Geldhof points out, “The tragedy of losing a space is also in a way a tragedy of losing identity. Especially as it’s not just a venue that they lost; they lost their origin, the place where they came from.”

Understandably, IZOLYATSIA has been outspoken in its indictment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, which relegated the institution to the status of “cultural refugees” in their own country. Recent exhibitions such as “Reconstruction of Memory” (February-March 2016) tackled these sensitive issues head on, whereas the guerrilla occupation of the Russian pavilion by IZOLYATSIA members and associated artists (Kulykivska among them) sporting military fatigues bearing the logo “#onvacation” at the Venice Biennale in 2015 stole the show from the PinchukArtCentre’s own project for the Ukrainian national pavilion, addressing the question of “transparency” in a group show emphatically titled “Hope!” curated by Geldhof.

The fact that the founder of the PinchukArtCentre derives much of his business profit from trade with Russia invites a more cautious approach. “We’ve never shied away from the political,” Geldhof assures me in an exchange over Skype. The R.E.P. (revolutionary experimental space) group – whose individual members like Zhanna Kadyrova, Nikita Kadan and Lada Nakonechnaya the PinchukArtCentre has worked with and supported over the years – stood out for him precisely because it “wasn’t afraid to touch upon sensitive political themes in a rather direct way”. Be that as it may, exhibitions such as “Fear and Hope” in 2014 – made soon after 100 hundred people were shot in the streets of Kyiv – have the merit of addressing a potentially incendiary situation “in a non-partisan way”. In Geldhof’s eyes, “by doing that you create the possibility for a conversation.”












Marguerite Humeau

This interview with Marguerite Humeau was featured on the cover of Metropolis M’s summer issue:


Agnieszka Gratza: You studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and then at the Royal College of Arts in Design Interactions. How did you make the transition from design to art?

Marguerite Humeau: My background is in design but “design art” doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not a “design artist”; I’m an artist. I studied textile in Paris and then I spent two years at the Design Academy. It was a bit too product-oriented for me. So I looked around and a friend of mine was in Design Interactions at the RCA. The tutors there were all designers working in the space they called “critical design” or “speculative design”. What I loved about it was the intellectual rigour. The focus was on emergent technologies but most of the projects were not answers to problems, they were really trying to design scenarios, to push things to the extreme and question things.

AG: Is that what people mean by “speculative design”?

MH: This is more “critical design,” I would say. Speculative design, which grew out of critical design, is more about “what if?” scenarios: what if this hadn’t happened, what could have happened? Where my work is still influenced by design is this idea of making a proposal for something new, instead of just commenting. You could make a proposal for another world; it doesn’t have to be a proposal for a coffee pot.

AG: Some of the works you produce are signed by Le Studio Humain.

MH: No, that\s my collaborator. Le Studio Humain is Benjamin Penaguin who is an art director and we started collaborating when I graduated. I wanted to find a way for the physical pieces to exist in different contexts, like when the projects are shown in a magazine or online, and this is how we started the conversation. He does all the video work, most of my images; for example, now he’s working on the poster and the trailer for the Palais de Tokyo show.

AG: Let’s start with the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures, which is still your best known project.

MH: The first creature was my graduation project and then I developed it as an opera for an exhibition that happened the year after my graduation in 2011. I developed two creatures, “Mammoth Imperator” and “Lucy”, in 2011 and then, the following year, I had the show with the complete opera – including “Mammoth Imperator”, “Walking Whale” and “Terminator Pig” – in St Etienne, France, which toured in Europe. When I started to research this project I realized research, as well as the odyssey and the quest, would be a big part of my work as an artist.

AG: Why do you insist on styling yourself as an adventurer, an explorer? And why are your works fashioned as odysseys?

MH: Because they are. My projects always start with a mystery that I have to solve and they become these very long-term odysseys: reaching people, experts; sometimes I collaborate with hundreds of experts who advise me how to do what I want to do. It really feels like an adventure, although it’s not a physical adventure, like going to a place…

AG: So you travel vicariously, in your imagination or on the Internet?

MH: Mostly yes. When I was looking for extinct languages for Cleopatra, I contacted academics who got in touch with people in lost villages in Syria, people you would never be able to reach directly. For the show at the Palais de Tokyo I went out to the jungle in Thailand to source elephant tears. So I also travel, it’s not only on the Internet.

AG: Tell me more about the elephant tears.

MH: I’m working on a project that’s related to elephants and I wanted to see how elephants are sculpted in the temples of Anghkor Wat in Cambodia since they are considered sacred animals. This was more for my archive. Then I went to Thailand because I wanted to see real elephants. For one of the sculptures at the Palais de Tokyo I needed to get elephant tears, so I asked a driver in Thailand to take me to a specific place. I didn’t know if I would be able to get the tears or not. When I got there I took a lot of pictures and videos as documentation for my work and at some point I saw that the oldest elephant was crying natural tears. I asked the elephant keeper about it and he said it’s normal when they are old. So I took one drop, put it in a bottle and brought it back to London.

AG: But why did you need elephant tears, if it’s not a secret?

MH: My show at the Palais de Tokyo is about reenacting the origin of life and in particular the origin of sentient life. I asked zoologists: Had humans not evolved as sentient beings which species would have become dominant as a sentient species, according to them? I got a few different answers but I picked the elephants.

AG: What do you mean by “sentient”?

MG: I mean conscious. Elephants already have death rituals. I read about a researcher who was in the jungle and saw the matriarch of one elephant family that had just died. For three days all her family stayed next to her body, looking at her on the first day; on the second day some of them stayed with her body while others went to get tree leaves to cover her body with. This was all done in complete silence and then on the last day they started trumpeting and then left the body. He reckoned it was a sort of death ritual. Elephants also have a language that’s well developed and that we don’t fully know. It was recently discovered that elephants hear clouds moving and that this could explain why when there’s a drought they know where to go to get water and where there is rain, thousands of kilometers from where they are. There are a lot of fascinating facts about elephants.

AG: How does this feed into your work at the Palais de Tokyo?

MH: I’m developing a family of ten sentient elephants that I’m imagining and making into sculptures. Each has been reduced to a specific biological state or function, in the same way as my prehistoric creatures were designed to make sounds, which is why I recreated only their vocal chords and the resonance cavities. At DUVE in Berlin one sculpture, “Taweret,” was producing the elixir of life, and I also only kept those organs that I needed to produce it. In the Palais de Tokyo show, I’m exploring the same idea. Because I’m talking about sentience and biological consciousness I’ve been looking at how you artificially engineer emotions. Is it only about hormones and biological processes or is it something else? To answer your question, one of the elephants has been designed to be constantly sad. It’s also a reference to the pleureuses, the criers, of ancient history.

AG: What other emotions will these sculptures embody?

MH: They stand for emotions as well as states: one is dying; one is getting born; one is engineered to despair.

AG: And how will these sculptures be displayed?

MH: We’re building a “biological showroom”. There are three pieces but they are all part of the same installation: the family of elephants, ten sculptures producing sound and liquid; the FOXP2, a sound piece which is a choir of voices; and the fresco that will be used to cover the showroom like a carpet.

AG: How are we to understand this idea a “biological showroom”? Is it any different to displays you would see in a natural history museum, for instance?

MH: Until now I was thinking about natural history museums and laboratories. With the biological showroom, we’ve been looking at commercial spaces. I’m engineering life and death, emotions, creatures and voices in a way that raises ethical issues. Is it something we want? My sculptures are all done in 3D and they are CNC-ed, which in the industry you use for mass production on an industrial scale.

AG: What exactly is CNC?

MH: It’s a big robot that sculpts from a 3D model that Le Studio Humain produces from my drawings. It can sculpt the piece out of a big block of foam so it’s not 3D printed. 3D print is powder or plastic that you add to create a piece. CNC is exactly the opposite because it uses a big block of foam and it removes all the excess material. It looks like an archaeological excavation. It’s as though you were digging and finding the shape inside the block of foam. As my pieces are highly designed, I thought it would be interesting to present them as if it were a demonstration stand.

AG: What will this demonstration stand look like?

MH: It’s still very much in progress but imagine a platform that will be designed to showcase the family of elephants. You will have this main stand in the middle, and around the showroom you have voices that are being played.

AG: What kind of voices will they be?

MH: My idea was to recreate 108 billion voices of homo sapiens: that’s the number of humans who have been living on planet earth since the first tribes of homo sapiens, a 100,000 years ago. I thought, what if I could get all of humanity to sing at the same time?

AG: Wow.

MH: They’re reenacting the origin of language – the tilting point when the chimpanzees start to develop an articulate language. At the beginning I wanted to reenact the whole evolution of language, but it proved a bit too much, so I decided to focus on the FOXP2. That’s something I’ve read about in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. He says that at some point there was a single chance mutation – one gene mutated allowing the larynx to go down and this is when humans started to develop language. This exact moment is what I’m focusing on. I’ve been contacting linguists around the world to try to understand what and how it happened. There are not many linguists who are specialized in that. Fifteen or twenty at most.

AG: I can’t imagine all of them have time to get into a conversation with an artist.

MH: When I work with experts it’s not a conversation as much as an email exchange. When we have all these emails, we confront them, we put all the information together and we develop the piece. I’m working with my collaborator, Pierre Lanchantin, who is based at the laboratory of voice synthesis in Cambridge. We’ve worked together already on Cleopatra’s voice. We’ll design voices that will be divided into different choirs by age; there will be 24 different groups of individuals who are signing and talking at different times.

AG: Why divide them by age?

MH: I was reading about Dante’s Paradiso, which is divided into spheres of heaven, and at the same time I was researching cloud theory and reading Benjamin Bratton’s theories on the Cloud structures which he describes as a stack. That’s how I think about this project. The dream of becoming an immaterial being. It struck me as funny that, on the one hand, you have paradise, which is in the sky and that’s supposed to be where our souls live in the afterlife and, on the other hand, we talk about the Cloud and there are all these dreams of artificial intelligence. Maybe one day we’ll only exist as souls and virtual entities.

AG: In projects such as Requiem for Harley Warren “Screams from Hell” and some of your previous works you explore geology and journeys to the centre of the earth, whereas now you’re looking at the sky, and heaven as opposed to hell.

MH: In my studio I have this graph I made. The vertical is the sky and it goes deep in the ground, and the horizontal is past times and future times. I was trying to work out where all my projects fitted on this diagram. For instance, the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures is deep in the ground, in the past, and then there’s an arrow: it goes back to the present because I’m reviving them today. Cleopatra is only time, it goes from the past to today or maybe the future. Then “Screams from Hell” is only on the vertical: from deep in the ground I’m bringing it to the surface of the earth in the gallery. The choir at the Palais de Tokyo goes from the past to the future, whereas the elephants are a parallel world: I’m not really reviving them, as you said, I’m creating them anew and trying to see how they could have evolved.

AG: The Palais de Tokyo project seems to bring together a lot of your prior interests. Would you say this is the most ambitious of your projects to date?

MH: Yes. I’ve been so lucky. It’s only my fourth solo show. It came very quickly. My first solo show was in early 2014 at la HEAD in Geneva; the second one was curated by Nadim Samman at Import Projects in October 2014; the third one was in Berlin at DUVE in April 2015; and my fourth is at the Palais de Tokyo. I was completely overwhelmed when they invited me.

AG: What about your contribution to Manifesta11? Are you one of the associate artists?

MH: Christian Jankowski came for a studio visit during Frieze Week in October, we talked and he asked me to propose something. The way it works is that they send out a list of all the professions that can be found in Zurich. You have a pdf with hundreds and hundreds of different professions, from bakers to taxi drivers to surgeons. Each artist had to propose two or three options.

AG: You don’t necessarily get your first choice then?

MH: It depended on whom they could find for you. I liked the fact that you did not propose a project but a collaboration; the project is the result of your collaboration. So I’m on an equal footing with my collaborator or “host” – that’s how Jankowski calls them. My host is an engineer at the laboratory of autonomous vehicles and he specializes in designing decision-making processes for autonomous cars.

AG: Like the google self-driving cars?

MH: He doesn’t work for google; he’s part of the Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich. They don’t only work on cars; they also work on flying, walking, underwater robots. But my host specializes in cars.

AG: Why did the idea of autonomous cars resonate with you and how does it tie in with your wider practice?

MH: The autonomous cars are in a way the new beasts. They can navigate on their own and they will eventually transport us. That’s what Matthias Bürki, my host, does: he engineers intelligence for these beasts. The project is about the origin of love. I’m engineering two beasts to interact with each other and fall in love. Apparently love appeared 150 million years ago with the first mammals. Ada Lampert, in her book The Evolution of Love, argues that love appeared with warm blood, that’s to say with the first mammals, because the hormones that are generated when you fall in love can only come from warm-blooded creatures. When researching the first mammals, I found this species called cynodonts that is a missing link between the dinosaurs and mammals. They are warm-blooded but they still lay eggs, which makes them the ancestors of the mammals. So I imagine that maybe love appeared with cynodonts, and I’m engineering two cynodonts to fall in love with each other using hormones and mating calls.

AG: And are you reconstructing them again using 3D models?

MH: Exactly, but just the parts that I need: the brain and part of the face and of their sexual organs – the hormone using organs. They are emitting hormones and mating calls and I’m filling the whole space with anti-love drugs, the drugs that are used for chemical castration. You have to imagine these two creatures: you can only see the top of their head and they are diving in this fog made of this anti-love drug.

AG: But that’s rather counter-intuitive: wouldn’t you want to spur love on, as opposed to stemming its flow?

MH: No, they are trying hard. This is a new direction in my work: creating rather than solving enigmas, mysteries and situations. That’s what I started with DUVE in Berlin.

AG: It sounds like the poison and anti-dote analogy might be useful here.

MH: Exactly. The two creatures are moving in the fog and they are engineered by my host, using skills that he’s normally using for cars but applying them to the beasts. For example, when the male sends this kind of signal the female should react this way. That’s how we try to test the interactions.

AG: And where will this be shown?

MH: It’s still a bit blurry. As part of the Manifesta brief we’re supposed to show two works: one at the host’s work space and one at Manifesta. I really want the main piece to be in my host’s work place at the university. There’s a sort of entrance hall around which there are balconies, windows and huge corridors. You could see the fog from the different levels but you wouldn’t really know what’s happening and the access would be closed to the public. I could set it up in a white cube but I think it’s more challenging to show it in a place that is not intended for displaying art. Maybe showing art in museums is a prehistoric idea.






This essay was written in response to Afterlife Woodland, the first in a series of audio works exploring the body’s decomposition by the artist duo French & Mottershead:

Philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That’s because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside of ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying. (Montaigne, Essays, 1580, I. 20)

Photo: Paul Blakemore

The body has long been banished from the afterlife. For those who believe in it, the immaterial soul or spirit of the deceased detaches itself from the body and strikes out on its own, so to speak, at the moment of death. A repository of the deceased person’s identity, the soul hovers, poised over the lifeless body, before embarking on a journey to face its maker, join the ranks of the blessed or the damned, or migrate into another body, depending on one’s creed.

Whimsically titled Afterlife, French & Mottershead’s latest collaborative venture turns this somewhat outdated notion inside out. Theirs is a resolutely atheist vision of the afterlife, one that draws on forensic science rather than eschatology. Conceived with four site-specific scenarios in mind, Afterlife in its different guises is concerned only with the body – not the soul – and what happens to it after death. Rather than being cast aside, the decaying body for once takes centre stage.

Not just any body; your body. You, the participant in what is an immersive artwork calling on audience participation, are handed a media player at the outset of Afterlife along with a blanket perhaps, depending on the season and where the piece is staged. (It can take place indoors and outdoors; in a public gallery as well as a private home.) You’re implicated in the artwork that you complete. It’s for you to find a spot – in the case of Afterlife Woodland a tree to lie under – and start playing the MP when you’re ready. You may decide to listen to the audio guide all by yourself or in the company of other bodies lying near you.

Your immediate surroundings match those described in the audio, always in relation to ‘your body’. On the occasion when I experienced Afterlife Woodland – a bitterly cold but sunny morning in late November – the trees in a city park I happen to know well, London Fields, stood in for the woodland scenery amid which the dead body is set in the audio narrative. The park’s majestic plane trees with their smooth dappled trunks and sprawling branches, bare in that season, put another participant in mind of a skeleton. Without giving much thought to its symbolism at the time, I opted for one of the few evergreens in the park, and spread out the blanket the artists had given me on a carpet of dry needles beneath its low-lying branches, which made me feel less exposed. Someone else who took part in Afterlife that day spoke of the urge to hide away, as if death and by extension what we were engaging in was a shameful activity. If only the passersby knew what we were listening to.

Written by French & Mottershead, the text of Afterlife Woodland is read out by a female voice actor who had been instructed to address the anonymous listener as if she were talking to a friend. The slow and steady pace of her delivery has a soothing and reassuring effect, despite the graphic and potentially disturbing nature of the account. She lingers over certain words, bringing out the musical quality of this densely alliterative piece of prose writing. The occasional pauses of eight seconds each impart a rhythm to the roughly twenty-minute-long piece and mark the passage of time. They allow the listener to digest the content and at the same time pay heed to the ambient sounds – in this instance of airplanes flying overhead, birds, people in the park, their dogs – which act as a reality check.

Just as the trees around us corresponded to the oak and beech trees mentioned at the start of the sound piece, our supine bodies dotted around London Fields served as a foil to the lone decaying body in the woodland. Though not explicitly directed to do so, we seemed to be encouraged to adopt its position: ‘You’re on your back, arms by your sides. Your eyes and mouth are open.’ Placed at the start, this sets the tone. We cannot help but identify with that other body, which progressively takes form in our imagination. As the narrative unfolds, we reluctantly graft its decomposing organs, muscles, tissues, bones and limbs onto our own body until we become one with it.

The use of the pronoun ‘you’ is key to the work’s success, and yet it is by no means straightforward. While it brings this spiritual exercise into line with other meditative practices – from Saint Ignatius of Loyola to the Buddhist metta bhavana – which also rely on a direct mode of address, what ‘you’ ultimately points to is a corpse. Even if it were your body whose post-mortem transformations were thus being charted, ‘it’ would still be a more fitting way of referring to a body that’s no longer alive.

But just how dead is it? There is still some body heat and oxygen left in it, at least to begin with. Its cells – we are told – are self-digesting. Eventually, they themselves perish: ‘The last of your skin and bone cells are no longer able to survive, and they die.’ By that stage the dead body has already undergone a series of transformations, assisted in this process by bacteria, maggots, insects, birds and other animal species further down the food chain, which feed on its remains and on each other. Alternately warm and cold, tense and relaxed, hard and soft, the body is continually changing – as alive in death, if not more so, than prior to its demise. Bereft of life, it appears to have been granted a new lease of life, which is another way of reading the work’s title.

‘Grotesques’ – from the Italian grotto – were fanciful decorative motifs inspired by fresco paintings found amid Roman ruins in the Renaissance. They depicted hybrid creatures in which human, animal and plant elements seamlessly merged. The dead body as portrayed in Afterlife Woodland exhibits many of the traits that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtine ascribed to the grotesque body in his landmark study Rabelais and His World (1965). For one thing, it is porous and permeable. The open mouth and eyes of the opening sequence allow flies to penetrate the body and lay eggs in its moist orifices; from these maggots will grow. The traffic goes in both directions. Blood and other nutrient-rich fluids escape the body and seep into the ground, making it more fertile and stimulating plant growth. For Bakhtine, blood as a seed buried in the earth is among the most persistent motifs associated with the grotesque body.

Above all, the grotesque body as Bakhtine conceives of it is cosmic and universal. At home in the cosmos, with the elements, the sun and the stars, it can become one with geographical features such as mountains, seas, rivers, islands, continents – or fill the whole universe. Likewise, the decaying, festering and germinating body of Afterlife Woodland gradually melds with the surrounding landscape, reaches its temperature, sinks into the ground beneath it. The exposed skeleton is repeatedly likened to an island at the heart of a thriving ecosystem. As time passes, what’s left of the dead body is slowly whittled away, reclaimed and absorbed by nature.

The Artist as Philanthropist

This feature originally appeared in the April issue of Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

On the face of it, the artist as philanthropist is an unlikely proposition. While some artists may be born into wealth, their chosen profession offers few prospects of financial stability and independence, let alone affluence on the scale that the term philanthropy (from the Greek, ‘love of humanity’) ordinarily implies. Though they can occasionally overlap, what distinguishes philanthropy from plain charity is vision, a clear purpose, financial clout, and an institutional framework that makes it possible to take a long-term view and address problems at their source. An artist is far more likely to be on the receiving end of philanthropic initiatives set up by wealthy patrons – the beneficiary rather than the benefactor.

Yet one could argue that artists, even of modest means, are at an advantage where charitable giving is concerned. In addition to their time, money and reputation, they can put their art in the service of a given cause. Artworks are their chief assets in this regard. Sold off at a benefit auction, the work of a sought-after and commercially successful artist can fetch significant sums. Take, for instance, Turner Prize winner Anthony Gormley, who supports a variety of causes, from the UK-based health charity Paintings in Hospitals to Comic Relief, which fights poverty and social injustice in the UK and abroad. His 2011 sculpture SUBMIT IV commanded the highest price (£300,000) at Unicef UK’s SyriART auction that raised a total of £750,000 – matched pound for pound by the UK government – in aid of refugee children in December 2014. Or else market star Marlene Dumas, several of whose figurative paintings have sold for over a million dollars in the past decade, including My Mother Before She Became My Mother (2010), which went for $2 million (nearly three times its estimated value) at an Artists for Haiti auction held in September 2011 at Christie’s in New York.

But artists need not be auction house record breakers for their gifts in kind to generate funds for philanthropic schemes, large and small. Educator and philosopher Bartosz Przybył-Ołowski, who is married to artist Paulina Ołowska, was thus able to enlist the support of Polish and international artist friends who donated 78 works for an auction in support of his RazemPamoja Foundation, which fosters mutual help and dialogue (as opposed to one-sided giving) between schools and communities in Poland and in Nairobi, Kenya, taking the form of mural exchanges, exhibitions, documentary and book projects. This parity, reflected in the foundation’s name – razem and pamoja mean ‘together’ in Polish and Swahili – is visually expressed in the striking peanut-shaped logo devised by Ołowska. As well as funding workshops and stipends destined for high school students in Nairobi’s Mathare slums, the proceeds from the ‘Learning, Sharing, Acting’ auction, which took place in January 2015 at Warsaw’s Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, helped to offset the costs of the eponymous Le Monde diplomatique publication, Into Africa: Learning, Sharing, Acting (2014). The book comes in two sizes: a funky magazine-size format designed free of charge by Stuart Bailey complements the more conventional paperback edition.

In conversation with former Goldsmiths teacher and student Martin Craig-Martin at a session titled ‘Goldsmiths Gallery: Artists as Philanthropists’ of the Art360: The Gift and its Legacy conference hosted by Goldsmiths on 19 February, the college’s Head of the Department of Art Richard Noble praised the ‘unbelievably generous’ response of alumni whom he personally approached to ramp up support for a new public art gallery that will be housed in a listed Victorian bathhouse on the campus. The £1,8 million conversion had been entrusted to Assemble, last year’s Turner Prize winners. As befits an institution that counts no fewer than seven Turner Prize winners among its alumni, the artist names beneath each lot at the dedicated charity auction read like the Who’s Who of British contemporary art with works from, among other, Damian Hirst, Anthony Gormley, Bridget Riley, Mark Wallinger, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen, Michael Landy, and Craig-Martin himself.


Far from being an isolated instance of generosity towards one’s alma mater, the artists Noble spoke to pointed out that they were asked to donate work to auction virtually every week. Craig-Martin concurred: ‘Once … you’ve made the mistake of giving something to a charitable auction, you then are deluged with requests. You cannot imagine the range of causes. … Auctioning art is seen by a lot of fundraisers as the easiest way in the world of raising money.’ While artists find it hard not to respond to similar requests, there are pitfalls to this kind of charitable giving. If a work is sold off significantly below its market price – as is often the case at benefit auctions where buyers seek bargains and charities ready cash – it can be extremely damaging to an artist’s career (though sometimes a gallerist will step in to buy the work at its ‘real’ value). ‘The more generous the gift, the greater the risk you’re taking,’ cautioned Craig-Martin.

These risks partly explain why such market-savvy artists as Marlene Dumas offer their work up for auctions only exceptionally. But there are other ways for artists to be philanthropists. They may choose to give work directly to a public museum, gallery or library that would not otherwise be able to buy it on the market. Cash-strapped institutions wishing to build up their contemporary art collections actively solicit such gifts. An artist may also put a cash prize that he or she had been awarded in the service of a cause they deem worthy. Dumas thus pledged €100,000 from the Johannes Vermeer Award she won in 2012 towards the Ateliers Support Fund to rescue an artist-run academy, where she herself has taught.

At a time of dwindling state and corporate support for the arts, philanthropy offers a third way – or so our governments encourage us to think. And who is better placed than the artists themselves to understand and seek to address fellow artists needs? Set up by artists Bridget Riley, Peter Sedgley and Peter Townsend in 1968, the SPACE project originally responded to a specific need: the dire shortage of affordable studio spaces in London. Empty warehouses, factories, schools, and other sites that could be converted into studio spaces and let out to artists presented a solution to the problem. The scheme took off and subsequently flourished in large part owing to the generosity of sculptor Henry Moore who chose the project as the recipient of the Erasmus Prize he won in 1968, the year when SPACE Studios (as it’s known today) was founded. ‘He was our first and best sponsor,’ one of the artists explains in The SPACE Story video made not long after the charity was established.[1]

Supporting charitable causes or artist-led initiatives is often a prelude to starting a foundation (a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization benefiting the public), one that reflects the artist’s values, concerns and his or her actual practice. Moore and Riley are a case in point. In 1977, ten years prior to his death, Moore who was known for his socialist views set up the Henry Moore Foundation, the largest artist-endowed foundation in Europe, and the first of its kind in England. One of the most lavish arts charities around, the HMF gives out £1 million in grants every year – roughly what the prolific and by the end of his career enormously wealthy artist was paying in income tax when he decided to set up his charity, at least in part to off-set this tax burden – to individuals and arts organizations. In keeping with the founder’s wishes, the bulk of the support is focused on sculpture (albeit in the expanded sense). The same applies to the Leeds-based Henry Moore Institute, which grew out of a centre for the study of sculpture; it now doubles as an exhibition and research venue with an outstanding specialized library and sculpture archive.

Registered as a charity in June 2011, the Bridget Riley Art Foundation is still relatively new and among the few artist-endowed foundations to become active during the artist’s lifetime (most tend to be founded posthumously by surviving spouses or relatives). With more limited means at her disposal than Moore, who poured all of his vast resources into endowing the HMF towards the end of his life, Riley is very precise in what she set out to do with the foundation that bears her name. So far the BRAF has funded a three-year project designed to expose students in and outside London to the Old Master and Modern drawings at the British Museum that she discovered as a student at Goldsmiths. This initiative, which led to the creation of two new curatorial posts at the British Museum, is part of the BRAF’s wider aims to investigate and nurture drawing practice among university art students.

Not all artist foundations are this specific in setting out their goals and the ways of achieving them. The trustees acting on the artist’s behalf often have ample room for manoeuvre. When the Alberses set up their foundation in 1971, ‘the guidelines were both beautiful and wonderfully vague’, says the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation’s project manager Nicholas Murphy, who directs the Thread residency program in the village of Sinthian, Senegal. Inaugurated in March 2015, Thread is meant to enable artists and writers working in any medium to expose themselves to ‘new frontiers’ in the pioneering spirit that characterized the artist couple’s life and work. For Murphy, the Thread building itself – which acts a cultural centre with residency facilities as well as an agricultural hub – illustrates the not-for-profit organization’s core belief that ‘art, culture and architecture should be supported alongside health, agriculture and education’. ‘Art isn’t the end of development,’ Murphy insists, invoking the locally-based project initiator Dr Magueye Ba, ‘art is development.’[2]

Cultural philanthropy may well be on the rise yet it is but a fraction of philanthropic activity overall. Artist foundations themselves have been expertly mapped out thanks to the Aspen Institute Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative (AEFI), which issued an exhaustive report in 2010 (updated in 2013) sub-titled ‘The Artist as Philanthropist’[3] – the phrase appears to have caught on. One important limitation of the study, from a European perspective, is that it only surveys the American field. International artist-endowed foundations are relegated to a chapter (at the end of the two-volume report) written by the AEFI Project Director Christine Vincent in an attempt to remedy this. Yet at a time when American-style philanthropy is held up as an example for us all, artists outside the US considering to go down that route would do well to take stock of its findings. Speaking at the ‘Artists as Philanthropists’ session of the Goldsmiths conference, Craig-Martin who grew up in the US was keen to impress on the audience what the American dream implies: once you’ve made it, you’re fully expected to give it back.


[2] In a Skype interview with the author on 9 February 2015.

[3] The full report is available for online consultation at



Jackie Waldren: Expat Lives

This article appeared in the FT Weekend’s Expat Lives column:

The poet Robert Graves lived and died in Deià, a village on the north-west coast of Mallorca. To him the village was a sacred place; in a 1970 interview with Playboy he described it as being at the centre of a “magnetic field” created by the iron ore in the mountains. Graves was one of the first expatriate artists to settle in Deià, but he was not the last. Since the first world war its dramatic cliffs and rocky coves have inspired waves of painters, writers and musicians.

It is the influx of expats and their impact on Deià that has long fascinated anthropologist Jackie Waldren, 79. In 1959, she discovered the village that would become the locus of her research, and her home. She remembers how soon after arriving she set out for Deià’s pebbly beach on foot. “I walked and walked and walked, and I slid down one of the [olive grove] terraces and sat there and looked around me. And I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. It was vibrating,” she says.

Waldren spent decades living between Deià and Oxford, where she was a lecturer and research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and a member of Linacre College, specialising in the social anthropology of expat communities. Her book, Insiders and Outsiders: Paradise and Reality in Mallorca (1996), examines how expats have changed the village.

One of her interests is identity, how it is “negotiated” and the related issue of belonging. Deià and its expat community was a natural choice of subject. “I always wanted to get behind the myth of Deià — its magic, goddesses, energies,” she says. “Foreigners perceive the space very differently to the way locals do.”

In 1962, she co-founded the Deià Archaeological Museum and Research Centre with her late husband, Bill, in an abandoned 17th-century grain mill. The name of the museum — which holds exhibitions by expat artists, along with poetry readings and concerts — reflects Bill’s academic interest. As Waldren puts it: “Bill dug up the dead and I studied the living.”

Waldren was born in Los Angeles and she arrived in Deià aged 21 having just graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. “I thought I knew everything,” she says. “[The landscape] really humbled me.” On her first evening at her lodgings she met Bill, an American artist and archaeologist based in Paris, who had spent the previous five summers in Deià, painting and giving art lessons. They got married and settled in Deià, renting a home until Bill designed and built a three-storey terraced “cave house” dug into the cliff.

“Back in those days, you could live in Deià for about $25 a month, including your rent,” says Waldren. Little has changed superficially about the place for centuries — there is still just one main road through the village of limestone buildings with terracotta roofs. In the 1970s Deià had a freewheeling vibe; Graves hosted friends such as Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov and Gabriel Garciá Márquez. Waldren recalls being chastised by the actress Maggie Smith, also a guest of Graves, for always dressing in black “like a Spanish woman”.

From 1975 the Waldrens — Jackie, Bill and their four children — spent term time in Oxford and summers in Deià. After the slow pace of life in the village, Oxford felt like an adventure. “Concepts of time — the seasons, past and present, minutes or hours — had to be adjusted in each place,” she says. “After Deià, where everyone knows everyone else and everything about them, it was a joy to be anonymous and wander here and there on my own.” Though Waldren was reluctant to get too involved in the rituals of college life, she adjusted to “Oxford’s scheduling and super-organised life”.

Jackie Waldren in Deià
©Javier Carbajal Jackie Waldren in Deià

Meanwhile, the village’s fortunes were changing. In the 1980s a five-star hotel, La Residencia, was built. “Little by little the hotel has created a whole infrastructure,” Waldren says. “People get this sense of luxury [when] they stay in these beautiful suites and they think, ‘this is the dream of a lifetime’.”

Today, Deià’s population of about 700 triples in the summer, and foreigners own 40 per cent of the houses in the village. The “artist colony” has been transformed into a high-end holiday resort. Celebrities and a business elite — Richard Branson once owned La Residencia — are replacing the artists of old.

After Bill died in 2003, Waldren continued to live between Deià and Oxford, teaching in term time and running archaeological excavations in Mallorca during the holidays. In 2012 she moved to the island permanently. She found her time in Oxford had complicated her relationship with the villagers. “You had to regain their confidence every time you came back,” she says.

Waldren has no plans to retire. As well as pursuing her research into ageing expats in Mallorca and their access to healthcare, she has taken on several new roles: tour guide, speech giver, workshop leader and celebrant at weddings for English-speaking expats. “Deià is a place where I’ve reinvented myself many times,” she says.

Marina Abramovic: As One

This interview with Marina Abramovic, on the occasion of “As One”, her collaboration with NEON and Greek performance artists at the Benaki Museum in Athens, appeared online in The Calvert Journal:

Marina Abramović 4Eight Greek artists discuss their work with Marina Abramović, NEON+MAI, As One. Image: Natalia Tsoukala

Few artists have dedicated themselves so wholeheartedly to a single art form as Marina Abramović. If the Serbian artist did not invent performance art, she started experimenting with it in the late 1960s and has done more than anyone else to put performance on the map by tirelessly promoting it over the course of a four decade-long career. The “grandmother of performance art”, as she describes herself, was born in Belgrade in 1946 to parents who were war heroes and militant communists. Abramović’s early performances in Serbia and with her partner – in life and art – Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), whom she met after moving to Amsterdam in 1976, are the stuff of legend. On her own or as one half of a hermaphroditic duo that came apart in 1988, the artist pushed her body to its physical limits, subjecting herself to pain and courting danger, even death, as a way of reaching heightened states of consciousness as well as testing the boundaries between the performer and her audience.

The Abramović Method distills the artist’s knowledge about performance. Abramović sees the very notion of “method” – particularly prevalent in theatre — as inherently Slavic; one need only think of theatre directors Stanislavski, Grotowski or Kantor. Her own method consists of a series of cleansing exercises, carried out in three basic bodily positions (standing, sitting and lying down), designed to slow visitors down and put them in the right frame of mind to experience long-durational performance. Along with re-performance, this is one of the key concepts the artist has introduced, and seeks to sustain via her performance art organisation, the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). She sees duration in performance as the necessary condition for a transformation in the performer and the viewer to occur. Her own intensely focused practice perfectly illustrates this, in particular the more recent feats of endurance, above all The Artist Is Present. Staged as part of Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and continually performed during the opening hours, the piece saw the artist exchange glances and energy with visitors – one on one – for a total of 736 hours.

The Calvert Journal caught up with Marina Abramović on the opening weekend of As One, a six-week programme of participatory performances drawing on the Abramović Method, at the Benaki Museum, Athens (10 March-24 April 2016). As One was a collaboration between NEON and the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI).

Marina Abramović 1Counting the Rice. Image: Felipe Neves/FLAGCX. Image courtesy of Marina Abramovic Institute and Kaldor Public Art Projects

TCJ: What are the virtues of long-durational performance?

MA: Long-durational performance is very hard on the performer but the transformation he or she undergoes changes the public and their view on life itself. For a performance you have to be in the present. But during the performance your mind can go to different spaces, times, think about something else. If you have to count every second, how much time have you got for your mind to go somewhere else between one second and another? It requires huge willpower to be in the present constantly. By doing that you change your brain pattern. By changing your brain pattern, you change your intake of oxygen and you can create a completely different state of mind, which can actually affect your life.

TCJ: Is the Abramović Method universal?

MA: The Method to me is the condition to understand long-durational, immaterial art. But it’s also a conditioning for any of your work. Everybody uses it for his own self. So I’m inventing a method for how to listen to Bach’s music, or how to look at a classical painting. It’s endless. We can find the key for how we can go back to simplicity. When I did a workshop with Lady Gaga, she immediately included the slow motion walk into her performances. People take elements from the Method that they need for their own profession. Whether it’s a farmer or a politician, they may realise things they didn’t realise because finally they have time with themselves. You don’t need to be especially interested in art to be doing the Method; everybody can do it.

Marina Abramović 2

Yota Argyropolou, One Person at a Time, As One, NEON + MAI. Image: Panos Kokkinias

TCJ: Do people respond to MAI differently in different places? What has the response been so far in Greece?

MA: I find the Greeks incredibly emotional. The culture is very close to me because it’s Orthodox, like in ex-Yugoslavia. My grandmother was Orthodox too, and even though my father and mother were communists, I was very connected to the spiritual elements of Orthodox faith. I became a Tibetan Buddhist myself.

TCJ: Do you view the Method’s exercises as spiritual?

MA: I never mention it, but they are in many ways because I arrived at them through my own experience. They all deal with our impatience to really quiet our mind and be in the present moment. They all have this same goal but different ways of achieving it. Even the lying in bed: it’s incredible how many people could not close their eyes and how tense they become. Because you’re quiet, you’ve got headphones on, and all that you’re left with is your crazy mind. That’s a huge enemy.

TCJ: Did you experience the Mutual Wave Machine, the work inspired by the “Mutual Gaze” exercise where you sit and gaze at a partner inside a capsule onto which your joint brainwave activity is projected?

MA: I know the machine. The artist and neurologist Suzanne Dikker developed it with a software designer, Matthias Oostrik: it’s an experiment but at the same time an art piece and a sculpture. They based it on our research. After I finished The Artist Is Present at MoMA, American and Russian scientists (from the Sackler Institute in New York and the main Russian brain research centre in Moscow) became very interested in my brain. They experimented with caps and measured my waves and the waves of a person I’d never met before; in non-verbal communication with a total stranger, when you just sit in front of him and you mutual gaze, 70 per cent of the brain works more and subconsciously emits an incredible amount of electromagnetic vibrations. It looks as though our brains are much more active when we don’t talk. You start knowing a person more, on a much deeper level, when you don’t talk to him.

Marina Abramović 3Mutual Wave Machine. Image: Sandra Kaas

TCJ: What’s the future of performance?

MA: I am no wizard to predict the future but performance is a never-dying art: it always comes and goes like a phoenix, rising from its own ashes at different moments of the history of humanity. Sometimes it’s not needed and it goes underground and then comes back again in a different guise. In the 1970s it was very visible and in the 80s it completely disappeared because art as commodity was on the rise; then came AIDS and performance became all video and club culture with Leigh Bowery, Iggy Pop and all these people going into really heavy stuff; then it went away and was channeled through theatre and dance, and went back again into performance and became interactive with Tino Sehgal. It’s so interesting how it comes and goes.

TCJ: In the speech you gave on the night of the opening you said that economic crises often coincide with a rise of interest in performance.

MA: Yes, because performance is so cheap.

TCJ: Is it? It seems complicated and costly to get that many artists together.

MA: It’s true. But immaterial art is not a commodity. That’s the thing that’s different. If performance gets such a response in moments of crisis it is because it’s creating a community.

TCJ: You seem to be suggesting that there are more and more interactive pieces calling on audience participation. How do you see your role as an artist given this development in performance art?

MA: I’m on the way out, my dear. I’m 70. In my case the transition was that the public becomes the work but I create the context for that. I will still do some works of my own; at the same time I’m interested in how the public can take on the role of the experimenter. For me it’s very important that MAI establishes some kind of platform so that new forms of art can be developed, even if I don’t know the name for them, but that’s included in my idea of the concept of the future. Anything that’s immaterial and also the virtual world. There are lots of possibilities to develop around that. Take Magic Leap glasses – it’s virtual reality but it seems like the real world.

TCJ: MAI is a nomadic institution for the time being.

MA: Our logo is: You don’t go to us, we come to you.

TCJ: Where will you go next?

MA: Lots of curators are coming to see this show. Maybe Italy or Ukraine. I’m very interested in doing something in Paris, especially in the current social climate generated by the terrorist attacks. The only problem I have is lack of time.

Lis Rhodes and Aura Satz

This conversation with Lis Rhodes and Aura Satz appeared in issue 52 of Mousse magazine:

Aura Satz, In and Out of Synch, 2012

Agnieszka Gratza: In the credits to Between the Bullet and the Hole (2015), you thank Lis Rhodes “for years of conversations”.

Aura Satz: I actually got rid of that added line, because I felt it didn’t need to be quantified, but the conversations with Lis have always been precious and valuable and have fed into the making of my work.

Lis Rhodes: We don’t talk necessarily about the construction of a piece of work; we talk about it in a rather more tangential way and find interesting common ground that we deal with rather differently in the work itself. There’s the continuity of it. Every three or four months we get together for two hours without having to pick up from anywhere – we just go.

AS: We’ve been in conversation for probably 17, 18-odd years. I’m trying to think how it began. I first came to the Slade as a student in 1998. So that was one kind of conversation. It always seemed an important part of my formation and even of my understanding of what a conversation might be.

LR: What I was going to ask is what do we think a conversation is, because we’re speaking of it as a dialogue but obviously a conversation can be very wide.

AG: Yes, that’s what a “conversation piece” was as a genre of painting in the 18th century, where you see a group of people in a landscape or a domestic setting, often gathered round a table such as this, conversing or exchanging ideas.

LR: You mention 18th-century painting, which immediately makes me think about being in conversation with maybe an author writing in a completely different moment in time. That’s a different sort of silent conversation.

AG: In the artist talk introducing your solo exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, Aura, you invoked the idea of a “trembling line” – the title of the show – or musical strings as two points of tension with a vibration in between, which you saw as an apt metaphor for a conversation or a collaboration.

AS: In In and Out of Synch (2012), the film which Lis and I scripted together, that idea of the space between the two voices comes up. That’s how I understand a conversation: as something constantly vibrating, in motion and unfixed, although there are two voices or more.

AG: Could you comment on the title of In and Out of Synch in relation to your work with sound and image, and their synchronization?

AS: When I was looking at optical sound, Lis’s Light Music was a key point of reference. I wrote an article for Cabinet magazine, “Shapes With the Sound of Their Own Making”. That was a pretext under which we started to meet more regularly. A few questions came up in that conversation which still come back, again and again, around what abstraction is and does; what synchronicity is, if it’s even possible; sound and image; how you might use language to break it down. All those questions are very much present in your work, Lis, in many different variations.

LR: Dresden Dynamo (1971-72) was made to prevent the usual slippage in film between sound and image. I wanted to not have that gap, so that the one is the other and the other is the one.

AG: Why did you not want the gap?

LR: To make it so that the two things were inseparable. And because so much of film at the time, particularly fiction films but also documentaries, was using sound in very manipulative ways. I do it myself, so I know perfectly well that that’s the case. After that, before making Light Music, I tried to see whether I could get an equivalent from the sound of words and letters. I made something called Amenuensis in 1973, and I used some of it in Light Reading five years later. (I work very much backwards and forwards and sideways.) That didn’t work, I thought; the sound became rather blurred but it made me think about reading and led to Light Reading. Do you hear the words or do you read in silence? I’m never sure. I find this a very interesting aural set of questions.

AG: There was no such thing as silent reading up to a certain point. When Augustine describes reading silently in the Confessions, it’s still a perplexing activity as people at the time were used to reading out loud. The words were never voiced in one’s head but had an aural envelope. That’s what I find so fascinating about In and Out of Synch: these two embodied voices that you can characterize. You know something of your age, where you come from – there’s so much character to both your voices in that piece.

AS: In and Out of Synch developed as a conversation and then went into writing and back into spoken word, woven into a soundtrack where the voices were exactly that: sometimes overlapping, sometimes slightly out of synch. They are slipping in and out of each other. There’s a real sense in which the voice doesn’t have a set place; it’s this very mobile space between.

LR: We wrote it in a very mobile way as well, over about six months. From March to September 2012, we were exchanging bits and pieces every now and again. It wasn’t anything either regular or structured. So “slippage” is absolutely right for describing how it came into being.

AS: When we’re in conversation I experience a very productive doubt about how languages operate and the meaning of certain recurring words such as “abstraction” or “measurement”.

AG: As an image, the ruler crops up in Between the Bullet and the Hole or Light Reading, and then the word also appears in the titles of your films or exhibitions, whether “Her Marks, a Measure”, Aura’s new show at Dallas Contemporary, or Lis’s certain measures an index of disbelief. One of the meanings of “index”, I believe, is in fact “measure”.

AS: Light Music looks almost like lines on a ruler. Do you remember, Lis, when I proposed that we might write something together, we wrote down the sentence “Abstraction is measurement”. That sentence is in In and Out of Synch.

AG: How do you understand it?

AS: I don’t know how I understand that sentence because I still think of it as a question. I think of the measure as being something unfixed or manipulated in order to establish certain standards; how one group of people are treated as opposed to another, or how one voice is made to override another. In forensic photography, rulers are used to establish the size of a bloodstain or the distance of the bullet from the victim. There’s a sense of setting a scale, of measuring in order to construct a truth.

LR: In “certain measures an index of disbelief”, which is the central part of journal of disbelief, the “index” is the measure of those measures which are taken against some but not against others – measures of difference and inequities – the most affecting being taken in secret.

AG: You can also see an “index” as a pointing finger, or as a record.

AS: What does the gesture of pointing do? In our early conversations we talked about doubting Thomas and this idea of putting your hand in the wound in order to believe, or the legal dimension of it: if a court case takes place without any witnesses then did it ever happen?

AG: In your Cabinet essay you quote Lis as saying: “Seeing is never believing or lip synch a confirmation of authenticity”.

LR: Gertrude Stein, in her book How to Write (1931), wrote a chapter on forensics. And she writes “Forensics are the words which they like, they must be careful”. Be careful of what you measure with. Here the conversation goes both between the three of us and her, to a degree. I’m using her words, read in my voice. We’re having a conversation that’s wider than sitting around the table. Imagined persons come into the conversation.

AG: Your work, Aura, often brings to light unheard and unsung women’s voices, whether it’s Daphne Oram in Oramics (2011), the astronomers in Her Luminous Distance (2014) or Laurie Spiegel and Pauline Oliveros in Dial Tone Drone (2014). Light Music was likewise made in response to a lack of female composers. In 1980, Lis co-founded Circles with Felicity Sparrow to distribute women’s films and video. Do you see these as acts of resistance? More generally, do you consider yourselves as feminist artist filmmakers?

LR: It’s simple for me: I just can’t imagine not being a feminist. One couldn’t not be. It’s absolutely critical.

AS: Obviously I’m a feminist, though I wouldn’t call myself a feminist artist, a sound artist or even a filmmaker, but an artist who uses sound and film, sometimes about women. Yet I feel very strongly about the unheard voices and a lot of these are women’s. Certain conversations, certain phrases come back in circles, and one of them was “how to insist, how to resist” in In and Out of Synch. That’s one of the impulses behind making work. You don’t necessarily answer something or resolve it, but it needs to be insisted upon. Between the Bullet and the Hole is very much an attempt to resist.

AG: Would you say the same is true of your work in progress, journal of disbelief, Lis? How much of a work in progress is it?

LR: Very hard to say.

AG: How long have you been working on it?

LR: In its present form, the last 15 years. But it goes back to 1991 when I made Deadline, a short film to do with what I felt were distortions in legal practice.

AG: What is it that holds together, to your mind, the disparate concerns or acts of violence being denounced in the film?

LR: The extreme violence and illegality of law holds it either in pieces or together. Probably in pieces, actually. I’m trying to describe the slippage between an abstract system of law which is tortured into allowing to happen something that is blatantly illegal. And I’m using here, because that’s where I am, as the focus and everything else is perceived from that rather assumed position, possibly a prejudiced one. We don’t live in separate worlds, though some are forced to, say, at the camp at Calais that I visited in December. I filmed this only four weeks ago. But elsewhere I deal with the Sangatte refugee camp.

AS: You went to Calais to witness, take photos and provide evidence. Part of the challenge with the images that appear in your film is the relentlessness of it, lasting an hour and a half. At the beginning the images fade into one another very gradually, and you’re somewhere between feeling numbed and shocked. Then, later on, the writing becomes very dense, and one has to negotiate the legal language alongside the more poetic writing.

AG: The text often comes to the fore and takes over. The film seems to be doing something new in the sheer weight it gives to text. Why give such prominence to it?

AS: Wasn’t it going to exist possibly as a book or even as a website?

LR: This is what I really can’t decide, because it is in my mind somewhere between the two.

AS: The book would be a whole other experience. Rather than the slow fades or sharp cuts one would just turn the page and probably linger over some of the writing.

AG: Aura, in Between the Bullet and the Hole you use words sparingly. Perhaps that’s another point of contrast between your films.

AS: One of the key ways of thinking around text when I first started was this idea of breaking down looking. What I wanted is for the looking to start widening a gap, to allow something to emerge. I didn’t want to give too much detail or specifics other than a starting point around women, data collection, data processing and war. Then the film started to unfold. I think of it as a series of collisions, both in terms of the historical starting point and how that collides into the present gun culture.

AG: And yet you deliberately eschew any graphic representation of violence, unlike Lis in the journal of disbelief. Why is that?

AS: I wanted to look at the ways in which women engaged in early computer programming, calculating the trajectory between the bullet and the hole, were undertaking an extremely abstract calculation, beyond victim and perpetrator. I did have specifics in mind to do with having myself lived in or visited war zones, experienced violence very much first hand and been intensely traumatized by it. Why I’ve resisted talking about specifics is because I was concerned about the ethics: I didn’t want flesh, which features a lot in your film, Lis. I also felt if I put in graphic images, which immediately bring us into a position of empathy or apathy, it would shift the way we look at it.

LR: What I’m wondering is whether the very intense soundtrack of Between the Bullet and the Hole (composed by Scanner) is meant to create a physical experience? Are you using it to punctuate and/or affect?

AS: The rattling quality of the soundtrack was intended as an acoustic counterpart to what’s happening visually. The film doesn’t actually have a regular rhythm; it’s throbbing but it doesn’t have a pulse.

LR: You almost described it, that physicality. Why I use bodies is that we are now avoiding – or not being allowed to see – that during years of continual war, to quote from the journal of disbelief, “the US military has spent millions of dollars to prevent Western media from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite pictures of the effects of bombing”.

AG: And these graphic images are a way of revealing what is meant to be kept secret?

AS: What you’re saying is these images need looking at; they cannot, should not, will not be concealed.

LR: Indeed. The problems are not of forgetting but rather of remembering, of the retrieval of the disappearing and the disappeared, of the omission and destruction of evidence. All of these are the effects of the illegalities of legality. The images in the journal of disbelief are not violent – they are the result of the inflicting of violence.

AG: In his novel Remainder, Tom McCarthy writes about the beauty of guns as objects and concludes that there’s “no beauty without violence, without death.” In Between the Bullet and the Hole you eschew the graphic nature of wounded flesh and other violent imagery; on the other hand I could not help but feel that the images of the bullet holes themselves, in the way that they’ve been photographed, are incredibly beautiful as images. I was left wondering if that’s not a way of aestheticizing what effectively amounts to violence?

AS: That’s a risk that I’m wary of. I definitely didn’t set out to make a beautiful film. Once the bullets are fired, they are effectively abstracted relics of a collision, evoking a mushroom or flower, traces of matter. Ultimately they are evidence of the bullet trajectory. This is the problematic beauty of forensics.

LR: If one is interested in the marking of the gun barrel, which is central to forensics, I suppose my mind moves to the markings on possibly the body and then to shrapnel, holes, internal damage; I find it difficult to not start thinking in that way.

AS: I think of the film as a kind of perforation or a gaping wound. It was a difficult film that I made reluctantly. I remember talking with you and saying I don’t know if I even want to make this film and you said: “Precisely because you don’t want to, you must.” Now it needs to circulate and we’ll see where it goes. I certainly don’t want it to be interpreted as a celebration of the beauty of guns and bullets.

AG: It’s curious: emotion is somehow kept at bay in that film. I wonder if that’s precisely because of the absence of flesh and the abstract nature of the images.

AS: I don’t like to be emotionally manipulated and I don’t want to make work that does that. All my films somehow hover, here it is between the bullet and the hole. I’m in one position but I could be on the inverse, or on the other side. We have talked about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing as a film that achieves that brilliantly; Lars von Trier’s Dogville is for me another example of this. I wish I could make a film that enacts that slippage of positions and ethics, but I don’t know if I could ever make that kind of narrative film.

AG: At the Tate Film screening in 2012, these two films were bracketed as “work in progress” but one of them is about to be thrown into the world.

AS: How do you know when something is finished? In my case it’s been maybe two years; in your case 15 or more. I’m ready to let this go and see what it shouts back at me. I need to start hearing it. I need to step out of it.

LR: I don’t think I am ready to let it go at all.