The Big Interview: Imogen Stidworthy

Amy Jones spoke to Imogen Stidworthy, currently exhibiting in Niet Normaal: Difference on Display, at the Bluecoat as part of DaDaFest…

Liverpool-based artist Imogen Stidworthy works largely with video and sound installations, often interrogating our relationship with language and how we produce and locate our own identities within and outside of it. Stidworthy has shown all over the world at major exhibitions such as Documenta 12 and the Shanghai Biennale and she won the Liverpool art prize in 2008. Her work, I hate (2007) is currently on show at the Bluecoat in Niet Normaal: Difference on Display, part of DaDaFest 2012. Here, she talks about her work in the exhibition, art in Liverpool, and how the theme of difference continues to inform her practice.

The Double Negative: Hello Imogen, could you tell us a bit about your work ‘I hate’ currently on display at the Bluecoat as part of Niet Normaal?

Imogen Stidworthy: The piece is a video work, it’s a projection within a curtain enclosure, a white curtain, which is probably going to remind people of hospital curtains around beds because it’s that kind of shape, and similar scale. The video was originally part of a larger installation called I hate which I made for Documenta 12 in 2007. This extract of the installation I feel can work by itself, but the conditions of how it’s experienced as a viewer have changed a little bit. The sound that originally was coming out of stereo speakers on a large false floor is now on a much more intimate scale. You now sit on a bench, inside which lie a pair of transducers, those kinds of speakers where if you hold them in your hands you don’t hear anything, but if you put them onto a surface the sound is dispersed through the surface. So, in effect the bench becomes a loud speaker, but also very resonant. The idea was that the voice would become completely embodied in material and also in your body because as you sit on the bench you feel the resonance of the voices.

I thought it would be really interesting to work with something really sensual and bodily and the voice is kind of immaterial in your body, through the transducers. I was aware that there would be more people coming to the exhibition who might have different modes of perception to ‘normalcy’. I mean, the show was made by artists with different bodily and mental forms of perception and is therefore, I think, particularly interesting for audiences who have different forms of perception or different bodily conditions.

TDN: Could you tell us a bit more about how these themes of perception, physicality and normalcy are reflected in the content of video itself?

IS: There’s a man, Edward Woodward, who was a professional photographer, until 2000, when he had a cycling accident near kings cross, where he lives in london. The accident caused him to have aphasia, which is brain damage to the language faculty of the brain. He was going, and had been going for many years, to speech therapy with a speech therapist, Judith Langley, who I met in 2003 through another work I did. We’d started a conversation and there was something in that condition, of having lost certain aspects of your ability to use language. I’d broached it in an earlier work called The Whisper Herd. It was something I felt was so interesting and there was so much more I wanted to explore in that idea of how language kind of pins the world together for us and holds certain concepts and understandings in place. If it goes, some of those understandings remain and some seem to go or they are no longer secure or certain. It just felt that there was a really interesting relationship between language and different ideas of meaning and perhaps at the heart of that question for me was how does language support … define, or shape our sense of self.

So I went back to working with Judith and I quickly realised that Edward would be someone I’d really like to work with because, although he could speak, he has huge problems in articulating or pronouncing his words. But he had this amazing history of taking images of installations and architecture in which he just had a very unusual ability to translate an installation. For example, a really complex work, that had maybe different elements, spatially, he could make an image of it that would be beautiful as a photograph and also working for the artist as a record, which is a demanding thing! So he had this amazing articulacy with the visual.

“Language kind of pins the world together for us and holds certain concepts and understandings in place”

TDN: And how did his loss of speech impact that ability?

IS: I think the emphasis shifted slightly. His photography of architecture and of installations just couldn’t continue because he … couldn’t communicate with people, I mean he couldn’t speak at all for a whole year so that had to stop. But on the other hand that fluency, that engagement with the visual image or with the world through the visual, absolutely stayed, but just changed its form. He couldn’t continue with his professional photography but he started using a little cheap camera, taking hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the huge building site around Kings Cross that was on the go at the time for the new Eurostar terminal. There was this massive landscape in which there where many structures being demolished and others being built up and he was going to the same set of different positions around that enormous area, taking photographs every week and then he would create panoramas by taking several photographs in a row and then stick them together with cellotape.

I thought it was really interesting that the focus shifted onto this scene of building and demolishing, constructing and taking apart, destroying structures. When I was observing at speech therapy for a few months, I observed his sessions and you really had a very strong impression of tiny components of language being worked on in a very precise way in terms of the pronunciations. The meaning of those little sounds could change in the most surprising and sudden ways just because of a slight nuance in the pronunciation, because that’s what happens with language. Change the pronunciation a tiny bit and it means something completely different. There was a relationship between these sonic and bodily structures, and linguistic structures that were being worked on, built and defined and then suddenly collapsing and becoming meaningless. I got the sense that I was witnessing language building up and breaking down in certain ways. Then on the urban scale of big structures, of organisation of space, there was something kind of similar going on.

TDN: Your work makes a lot of reference to Lacanian theory, the idea that we use language as a form of perception in itself. Could you explain what role (s) you think language plays in the construction and deconstruction of difference and how that’s reflected in your own work?

IS: One idea about what language is, not necessarily tied to linguistic language, is difference, the tiniest difference. As soon as there is difference, then you have a relationship with what it’s become different from. There’s this sort of leverage, agency or something and you can start to build and understand it as a form or meaning of language. So difference, I mean I think one of the ongoing conditions of language in many of my works, is that there’s a very ambiguous, very unstable status in terms of the idea that it can carry meaning, or the kinds of meaning that it does carry. There is very often some problem with language, it’s not functioning, it’s been damaged somehow or the brain has been damaged so the structures of language are somehow disturbed or the presence of the body is so strong that it’s very difficult to concentrate or even follow the language.

If I think chronologically about the first work I made with language in 1992, it was with voice. It partly came about because I suddenly discovered I could use a microphone and record my voice and that could be material. Sound has such a materiality but it has no concrete presence, but it can fill a room and it can set up a very strong presence in a space. Before that I’d been working in a very structural way with castings, and sculpture and building stuff so I’d been looking very consciously for a way to create a certain tension in a space without having to use these great big bits of stuff!

“I suddenly discovered I could use a microphone and record my voice and that could be material”

TDN: So there is obviously real focus on sound and language in your practice, but you frequently work with visual (often moving) images, what role do images play within your work?

IS: The word image is something I’m very preoccupied with within the work. In terms of the visual image … when I’m often working in a situation in which language is either somehow breaking up or seems to be communication. There’s always a questioning of the visual image and what kind of image … could it make sense to work with. What are its qualities in relation to the condition of the language? Like the piece I made with backslang (Barrabackslarrabang 2009-10), liverpool slang. It seems to be communication, but it’s only communicating to those in ‘the know’, to others it’s just completely confusing and doesn’t let you in. That was a language that was repelling you, and you couldn’t penetrate it unless you knew. In that case, that was a video, the visual image drew you in, seduced you into it, so even though you might otherwise struggle with what you could hear you would kind of be drawn into the visual and could stay with it and be absorbed by it on that level. That allows you to stay with the sound or a language which might otherwise throw you out to the extent that you wouldn’t be able to engage with the piece.

TDN: You won the Liverpool art prize in 2008, what was your experience of that?

IS: I think at that stage in my career it was really nice to show my work here in Liverpool. I hadn’t shown any of my work here. Arriving here in Liverpool, having been away from England for a long time, it takes time to become integrated with the place and the people in it, and in terms of my own art practice, I was mainly showing outside England, let alone in Liverpool. So it [Liverpool Art Prize] was really important to feeling connected with the city and other artists in the city and the different kind of infrastructures that exist here. Also … the people who propose you for the prize, it was just very nice, because it’s a kind of recognition from other artists and other people who work in the arts here.

TDN: What are your views on Liverpool’s current art scene?

IS: I think it’s amazingly active. For a city of this size it’s amazing. I really enjoy the different scales and scopes of activity that happen here, from the Biennial which is massive and almost entirely international, to exhibitions at The Royal Standard or things happening at Static or through the Art Association. So it spans from entirely self invented and self set up events and exhibitions on a small scale from people who just do it entirely from their own energy and invention, to really major shows in Tate as well. I find that really exciting.

TDN: Lastly, do you have any advice for emerging artists?

IS: Always check your measurements!

Amy Jones

Pictured: I hate, originally commissioned for Documenta 12 but now showing as part of DaDaFest 2012. Image courtesy Imogen Stidworthy’s website.

Niet Normaal: Difference on Display will be showing at The Bluecoat Monday -Sunday 10am till 6pm until 02 September 2012.

Posted on 16/07/2012 by thedoublenegative