warehouse warehouse

WHAT’S THE DAMAGE

by Heather Phillipson,  Interview by Pujan Karambeigi,  available 04.07.17 - 18.07.17
Heather Phillipson, WHAT'S THE DAMAGE, 2017, film still. Courtesy: The artist.

Heather Phillipson’s most recent work performs ‘a bloody hot takeover’ by intertwining digital fluidities and physical cycles. The complex augmentations between textual rhythms and visual layers, between different textures of fluidities, constantly multiply the interconnections. And while we watch a hideous blond head of hair (read Trump) mounted onto a cowboy photo (read Putin) in a wooden frame being chased by a grey arm we hear: ’shovelling down sound bites & regurgitating it / over our saddest images.’ [read on]

Heather Phillipson works across video, sculpture, music, drawing and poetry. Her forthcoming projects include the Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, in 2020, a new online commission for Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, a sculptural commission for Art on the Underground’s flagship site at Gloucester Road and a major solo show at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, all in 2018. Recent solo projects include: Screens Series, New Museum, New York; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Frieze Projects New York; 32nd São Paolo Biennale, Brazil; Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the 14th Istanbul Biennial and Performa New York. Phillipson is also an award-winning poet and has published three volumes of poetry. She was named a Next Generation Poet in 2014, received Poetry magazine’s Friends of Literature prize in 2016, and writes a regular column for ArtReview magazine. She received the Film London Jarman Award in 2016.

Heather Phillipson, WHAT'S THE DAMAGE, 2017, film still. Courtesy: The artist.

Pujan Karambeigi: I would like to start this conversation by talking about the ‘bloody hot takeover’ you are both proposing (politically) and performing (formally) in WHAT’S THE DAMAGE. Could you say something to that?

Heather Phillipson: I made this work quickly, at the end of 2016, and with a sense of heat. I feel alive in a state of emergency right now and this, for me, was a means of directing that feeling. It’s redolent of a state of deluge, and insurrection.
At its most literal it’s proposing, yes, an upsurge of menstrual blood as a tide against dominant power structures. I mean, what if? Just think of all the richness, colour, nutrition, outflow, power that’s produced across the world monthly (daily), and flushed into sewer systems. How about taking the concomitant disgust, shame and submission that’s imposed on menstrual bleeding, and exposing it, upending it.
In her epigraph to Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes an American news anchor, saying, ‘If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.’ Well, I don’t like the news. So that idea, and its formation, gets me – don’t just listen: speak, agitate, produce, disseminate, renew. It contributes to a sense I have that art (in its broadest form/s) is protest, not just a form of it. What’s being protested and why and how depends on the artist and the work, of course, but, for me, making is first and foremost a means of answering back, a way of activating worlds, a way of conceiving alternatives. An artwork is a mind, and it’s a mind that, at its most potent, might allow thinking to become unhinged (even more unhinged).
Of course, the ‘bloody hot takeover’ is also a metaphor (what isn’t). Menstrual blood is the result of an un-made baby, so it manifests a potential life, and its lack. It’s complex, both in its composition and in its political, cultural and personal significance (frequently, inseparable). It’s a substance that makes neutrality impossible. Menstrual bleeding is not obedient and it’s not rational: it’s a pungent, bodily response. And, in keeping with my use of materials more broadly, it’s readily available and has combustible potential.
But, importantly, though menstrual bleed is an exclusively fertile female substance, I don’t want to exclude those that don’t menstruate. As it appears in my video, menstruation is, above all, a representation. It’s an image – of propagation, eruption, release. A call to harness the (whatever) forces at our disposal.

PK: Looking at your piece COMMISERATIONS! you used the human heart both literally and metaphorically to confuse between digital and physical realities – ‘taking the heart as a spectre’. However, in WHAT’S THE DAMAGE you are not engaging in a muscular organ (and its clichés) anymore but rather in a biological cycle (and its fluidities). How would you address this transformation in the object of study?

HP: I’m interested in how things (often, bits of ourselves), are relayed back to us as images, metaphors, marketable bytes. Across my works (across media), this is often played out through the use of apparently instantly readable images (in these cases, the heart, blood) – let’s say, clichés – being wrenched from their conventional modes of circulation, and getting wedged, smashed, remixed, in order to render redundant, re-framed. And if images and words and syntax govern what’s thinkable, then unchecked clichés – perfect examples of the automatic conversion of image produced into image consumed – are interesting, powerful, dangerous. Cliché’s are not called, in French, ‘tartes a la crème’ (custard pies) for nothing – ‘the proof of the custard pie is that someone gets it in the face. It proves itself by bursting, spreading, crumbling, dripping.’

Heather Phillipson, WHAT'S THE DAMAGE, 2017, film still. Courtesy: The artist.

PK: In my last question I referred to a center of WHAT’S THE DAMAGE. However, looking more closely at the piece it seems to systematically undermine any reference to a center-like structure, most prominently through its paranoia. For instance, different types of fluid textures adjoin and augment each other both on the textual and the visual level. There is a bubbling, there are blots, plodding rivers and clotted blood, just to name a few on the visual level. Then there are oral flows, changing from a chorus to a monotonous reading to an agitation. These complex augmentations (in opposite to gaps or differences) between textual rhythms and visual layers constantly multiply interconnections. The crucial question at this point seems to be, how much meaning may be stacked on a screen and are we at any point reaching something that could be described as depth?

HP: The crucial question for me in response would be, what do we mean by ‘meaning’ and what do we mean by ‘depth’? I’m not trying to be facetious, I am genuinely unsure of these terms, especially in relation to art. And, for me, that’s productive, because it relates very directly to working with what’s (nearly?) incommunicable, to working with dynamics as much as with forms, to working in the context of being numerous, to putting moments of flight in the system, to taking nothing for granted, delaying coherence. Defying the pressure to immediate understanding – and, instead, squandering meanings – has critical potential. This is a site that permits ambivalence – or, at least, allows it to be negotiated. And it’s perhaps because of these concerns – driving forces – that my work is always made with a sense of vertigo – precariousness, falling – which may be the greatest indicator of any kind of ‘depth’ (height, volume, psychological space). And, along the way, it’s as much about what escapes, gets lost, as with what sticks. The binary of winning/losing, getting it/not getting it, is revealed as a false one, a decoy.
What’s vital to me is precisely these textures, rhythms, layers and agitations because they’re thoughts given form (and, to quote Sturtevant and Marianne Moore respectively, “thinking is a kind of madness” and, “The sentence is a radiograph of the personality” – and, for me, editing videos is likewise). How I orchestrate encounters between bodies and screens – so that the monitor (and it is usually a monitor) is consistently altering / blocking visual space – is a significant part of these textures and rhythms. Between my videos and their sculptural environments are constant attempts to enhance their mutual material and tactile properties – the affective properties of worlds on-screen and off, in which the image performs as part-body and the body as part-image – so that the digital and physical may be momentarily conflated, without ever allowing total assimilation. It has to do with an attempt to understand technology as a kind of ecology – not extraneous to the human (whatever we mean by ‘human’) but constitutive of it.

 

PK: Simultaneously we watch an ugly blond head of hair (read Trump) mounted onto a naked cowboy photo (read Putin) in a wooden frame that is chased by a grey arm. Is WHAT’S THE DAMAGE bleeding into the digital space (the archive of 21st century junk)? And if yes, what would that actually mean?

HP: Oh yes, surely. It’s hard to produce much that doesn’t contribute to the archive of 21st century junk – although who knows how long it will last, so what kind of archive it will be, if any. All I know is that we’re permanently in emergent and associative states, mutually contingent, and that’s our primary connection, so anything that bleeds out into this digital, far-flung space, has the potential to become contagious.

PK: A last question: How come you upload your works for free on vimeo, distributing them all over the place rather than artificially running them short? Do you think this has any relation to you not being represented by a gallery?

HP: Everything to do with the distribution of my work is related. My videos take from the internet and go back out into it. Everywhere the work is shown, context re-frames readings. It keeps them numerous.