––––––(Work in Progress) –––––––
On February 22nd, 2013, I interviewed British artist and art theorist Tamarin Norwood at The Lamb & Flag, one of the pubs here in Oxford. We discussed her latest exhibition at The China Shop Gallery and the talk she presented at the show.
CL So almost a month ago, on January 30th, you gave a talk at your exhibition in The China Shop gallery entitled, “Well You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere”. Now I think the “-where” is probably the most important clue for someone diving into your work, but we’ll get into that later. First I wanted to start by asking about this idea behind what was chosen to be pictured on your invitation card. You’ve painted over multiple different brushes: everyday household tools which you’ve painted white–––and I was just wondering for now if you could talk about this act of painting over something.
TN You’ll remember at the beginning of my talk I read a text involving painting things red, and the real interest with that was the… well, there were various things, there was the apple, there was the plant pot, the bottle of moisturizer which got sealed shut with the paint, the fork, … and the stapler! All just household stuff that when you cover in paint you render them unusable for one reason or another. Whether you can’t eat it, whether you can’t open a bottle or use a fork because it’s got paint on it… and then I put them back in the positions around the house that they were originally in. The consequence of that was that, they were just around the house and now and again I was reminded of the fact that these were now, in a way, representations of themselves. While also being themselves they were kind of out of real world circulation.
The problematic that arose was: how do you show this in an art context? If you even want to. If you want to sort of integrate this into the discourse of art, as it’s evolving, which is something I’m interested in doing as an artist–––I think that’s my job–––the difficulty is. . .
CL Well, when it’s in the context of all of your stuff, that means something very different than in a gallery or in a museum.
TN That’s right. And there is the option of bringing people into the home and doing a tour of the home saying: here is my home, here is my artwork. And even pointing puts a frame around it and is a bit like putting a gallery around it. So various problems emerge, and I was thinking: how can we incorporate these problems and make the work really be about the problems. And so I was looking at brushes as they’re the things that do the painting––I began by painting lots of artists’ brushes in the colors that they might have painted. And so it was as though they were painting themselves, were painting representation into representation, somehow. And then I started to work with other brushes, household brushes, and actually the image that you see there’s a nail brush, a toilet brush, there are household brushes for painting the walls, there are various bottle brushes, there’s a toothbrush, basically all of the brushes I could get my hands on that would take the paint.
And what really interested me about that was the prospect that somehow function is painted. And to paint something over with its function, to paint a functional item over with its function, stops it from functioning, you see. So that’s really something that interests me.
Now I painted them white because I’m interested in the white gallery walls and what would happen when you bring functional objects into a non-functional space––which is the gallery space. This renders items and utensils broken, renders thing functionless. And I felt covering them in paint was doing a similar job.
The problem which I found with that is that it’s doing the same job, it becomes a redundant gesture which is why they ended up––they were a work in progress and in the end, that’s become part of my research and hasn’t carried on to become an artwork. But the photograph shows that process.
CL Well I like that you’re working with function so much, because that’s really the guiding direction I wanted to go in––I was hoping that that’s where you would go!
You study a lot about language: what exactly did you study in terms of language?
TN Well I studied medieval Italian Literature and linguistics, sort of 50/50 between these. On the linguistics side for me most important was the cognitive syntax, which is how human brains learn grammar, how various parameters are switched at a very early age when kids hear a kind of impoverished input from their parents, which is, as we’ve been saying, always never grammatically correct: when you speak you don’t speak perfectly. And so how do children learn to know grammar perfectly because they never actually hear perfect English.
CL Because they always say that you can hear the right grammar where you don’t know the exact rules. You develop ‘an ear’ for grammar.
TN That’s right, even though you don’t either say it or actually hear it. So that was a very important element, looking at sentences schematically and structurally and grammatically in terms of how various elements of the grammar move backward or forward, depending on whether a question is being formed, a passive is being formed, or different tenses are formed. And there are various theories–––[Chomsky has] transformational grammar, government + binding theory, Move-α–––all these various theories or elements of theory have developed over the years seen around structures to figure out how grammar works. So that was an interesting element to my linguistics training. And also lots and lots of translation theory.
CL I was very interested in how, focussing on the apple you painted red, if you paint a real world apple red you’ve given it a “film” which “turns it into a representation of itself”. It’s “reduced to the fact of itself” because it’s no longer useful. You can’t eat the apple! I just think that’s really poignant, that once you bring something back to the plane of representation it starts becoming almost objectively distant. It’s not a living breathing everyday life tool, item, or object––you don’t use it the same way.
TN And I think that’s something that Maurice Blanchot has written a lot about… also Peter Schwenger, as I mentioned in that talk… [Roberto] Pinheiro Machado wrote an essay recently–––maybe 2002 or 2003–––about the effect of naming on its object. And I think turning something into a representation of itself is a similar act to that of giving something a name. The fact that giving something a name, attempting to pin something down with a name, makes that thing retreat further away! So you can be chasing it and chasing it with a name or with any attempt to represent it. And the effect is always that if you cover it in a film you can’t eat it.
CL That’s exactly the chain that they describe in the post-structuralist shift, namely with Barthes and Derrida, the chain that leads away from what’s called the Transcendental Signified.
CL You keep adding more chain links or a film upon film until, eventually, you’re just as far as you can imagine from it.
TN And thats what Pinheiro Machado…. And then we have this desire to sit still. Pinheiro Machado describes language as a bridge that was built in order to connect two things that were never actually disconnected. And the bridge creates this disconnect.
TN Which I find a very satisfying formula!
CL I can tell that you’re very interested in when you bring something back from its everyday context to the art-discourse world. It’s a big shift, and for me a very hard translation to talk about. But it seems that much of your research deals with just this. But I don’t know your PhD very well!
TN Oh the PhD––that’s tangentially related, it’s true. I continue to look at Duchamp and the Ready-Made effect, although many people say that this is not worthwhile. I feel like there is still work to do in this area, though clearly…
CL Well it’s certainly not worn-out.
TN But now it’s almost a hundred years ago, 95 years since this original gesture.
CL Already 95?!
TN Yeah! 1917. But yes, I’ve done a lot of reading, a lot of thinking about the Ready-Made effect, which is of course this problem of bringing something into the gallery. But I think most of the work I’ve really done about has been looking at the relationship between language and non-language because I do see a linguistic parallel, between something being ‘in language’ and ‘not in language’––to something being ‘in art’ and ‘not in art’, or indeed being ‘in life’ or ‘not being in life.’
CL Right, and that’s why I homed in on the “-where”. So two things about that: you created that one piece called Doing Words With Things. . .
TN It’s exactly this interest in trying to find a meeting point between, this parallel between what is ‘in language’ and what isn’t in language. And I’ll tell you the scenario it came from! I was in a seminar, many years ago now, and a deaf friend was also in this seminar, and occasionally he employs an interpreter to come and sit by him so that he can follow everything more than he ordinarily does. At one point the hearing speaker using English was lost for words, he made a kind of gesture with his hands, waving his hands in the air in a sort of circular motion because he couldn’t think of what word to say. What was interesting was that the interpreter translated this gesture to Roy, my deaf friend, using this same gesture. Although she was at that point representing the gesture!
Now in spoken English this is not part of the language, this flailing around attempting to get at language. And in BSL obviously it was a sort of onomatopoeic translation, it was like she was representing the sound he just made. At that point the gesture was in language, and at the other point it wasn’t in language, it was in the room!
In the same way, deaf children, while they’re learning sign language will get deixis messed up in the same way that we do. So deixis is things like me-you, this-there, this-that… A little hearing child will say “me” when they mean “you”, because you keep saying me to refer to yourself, and they will call you “me” because they get that mixed up. Whereas they will never mess up pointing because pointing is obvious, its in the room, you point at what you’re pointing at. Whereas for a deaf child, the pointing is the deictic category, will point to you when they mean to point to themselves, because they’ve seen you do it. And so in that way the pointing in sign language is in language, not in the room. Which I find fascinating!
That’s kind of a preamble to Saying Words With Things.
CL Well then what about the wire?
TN Yes! Right. Now what I was trying to do with Doing Words With Things was to find some way of doing something somebody can do with their hands that was physically similar to what happens with your hands when you’re using sign language. And so I thought, can I manipulate clay in some way, what can I do? And eventually I settled on this idea that wire is sufficiently flexible and sufficiently insubstantial a product that I could use wire. So what I wanted to do is to make shapes, well… work the wire and have somebody describe it in sign language using the kind of onomatopoeic sign language which you need to use when you’re describing anything as physically detailed as that. Because obviously, just as in English we don’t have ‘enough’ words, we don’t easily describe things like ‘bend that bit a little bit over here kinda like… ’
CL You have to use the line to describe the curve, as you do later in your work.
TN Exactly! So it all comes together! That’s how the wire works anyway. What’s funny about the wire is it’s crucial, as I mentioned, for it to not end up representing anything. If I were to end up making a model out of the wire, you’d have this, as I describe it, “awkward third thing”. Which is an interesting category. Now, I’m not sure what the “awkward third thing” is, only that it’s an excess to this attempt to find a parallel between language and non-language.
CL For this piece, I remember, you “refused to let the conversation”–––that is, the wire–––“be left at the table after having had it.”
CL What did you do with the wire?
TN Just screwed it up and threw it away. But some of the time I actually unscrambled it and wound it back onto the wire spool so that I could use it again. But that doesn’t matter.
CL Although I like that route much better. So, in terms of that refusing to let the conversation hang somewhere–––and this is one of the things that I’m actually very interested in–––you have a conversation which was a living, breathing thing so to speak, something which happened at some time in context. What do you think about this conversation being recorded?
TN Um… I think that’s fine. I mean, it’s not an artwork so I don’t mind. I think the thing, the thing, the thing we’re doing is we’re doing a functional thing because we’re recording it so that you can use it. But also I think it is changing the way we’re speaking. We’re probably speaking more slowly; I described my hand gestures earlier on so that they would get recorded and end up in the text. So it does change the relationship. And maybe this makes an awkward third thing, but I don’t think that third thing is the recording, I think it’s the gap between the way we would naturally have a conversation and the way we’re talking for the sake of recording. Which I think is why it’s probably important that we had a bit of a chat before we turned on the recording, so we get a bit natural!
CL It’s almost as if the gap becomes a thing of its own, materialized somehow.
TN It’s full.
CL Exactly! That’s mainly what I’ve been writing on lately, how empty or negative space or empty time get substantiated and are given their own dimensions and then ‘felt’, experienced, sensed.
TN Yeah! Were you working on that in relation to Richard Long?
CL Not so much with Long, but say, Donald Judd. In some respects I’m closer to philosophy, but one person who stands out for me is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who once built a house in Vienna–––and one of the things he was particularly doing was articulating the functional space inside the structure as opposed to the structure itself.
TN Did he literally build this house?
CL Yeah, in the late 1920’s.
TN Really! I didn’t know that!
CL Yeah, it’s all part of this move away from solving problems to dis-solving them. A kind of therapy for the logician or linguistic type. And this has a lot to do with a habit of materializing the immaterial, like the conversation left hanging in the air.
TN And speaking of leaving conversations behind, I just want to add two more things. Firstly that there was the videos, and secondly that at the Tate we did leave things behind–––although I didn’t have that much control over it–––you know, because first I did it with Alex, a deaf actor, and then I brought in two deaf poets to do the whole performance. I realized that, clearly, although I had learned a but of BSL, but a beginner’s course is really not enough. And so I brought in deaf poets, and so, although I lost a lot of control over the piece, which is fair enough, one thing I was able to insist upon was that although they would create these shapes while they’re talking, they get scrunched up by the end of it, so that they’re scrunched up versions. Although it’s physically that there’s something left, all the movements that were made by moving your hands, both in sign language and in wire, are actually lost.
CL The space between the wire is getting crushed.
TN Yeah, right. But they’re kept in some way! But as a sort of captured… form. There’s something different which, for me, evades the problem of this awkward third thing.
CL So did you keep those wires?
TN No, I threw them away as well. Well, no, actually though they were left at the Tate, so maybe somebody kept them or maybe they were thrown away by the cleaners.
And lastly, the videos are purely documentation, and I think that’s absolutely fine, as long as I never show them without saying ‘This is a document or recording, they’re not the artwork’. We’re familiar with that problem.
CL Yes, that’s something I’ve never been able to figure out, the nature of photography and recording. It’s somewhat problematic, but I hope I come to terms with it sometime…
TN Or never! I think many people fail to do this altogether. Allan Kaprow, he created all of these Happenings and performance events and life events and things of that sort, but he wanted to document them, for the reason, as I said before, because he wanted to bring them into an art discourse which as an artist is his job.
CL Right! Richard Long says similar things about his photography.
TN So he photographed them, he wrote them up, and every time we did that he detracted a bit from the live, unique interactions and moments. But he felt that it was a compromise that was worthwhile.
CL I’d like to get back to this line of yours I really like, “my hands were in the room while his were in language”. How does that translate to a normal everyday conversation? Are we and our discussion in language right now? Are we in the room? It makes sense when you bring it to the physical level of gestures and hands, and in a certain sense with acoustics, but…
TN It’s funny, because obviously with spoken language . . . if I were to whistle, to attract somebody’s attention, that would be in a room maybe. Or an onomatopoeic sound that mimics something, that would be maybe more in the room. It would relate to representation in a different way. Is the fact that we’re raising our voices or keeping them below the general something in the room more? That’s a good question! What do you think?
CL If I had to take a wild stab at I would guess that what’s happening when somebody asks that kind of question they’re imposing the wrong kind of paradigm on the discussion, that they’re imposing the idea of being ‘in something’ on language, which doesn’t necessarily work in that way.
TN Maybe it’s that now that we’re talking about the conversation we’re having a meta-conversation, a conversation of the conversation and so this becomes something moving another level into language or another out of it. Either way, I think that we are… I think when you learn a foreign language you’re trying to remember what you had in your notebook, trying to say things. That’s barely in language. It’s when you internalize it and start being able to conjugate verbs without thinking about the verb list. But it becomes language, maybe? I don’t know, it’s an interesting question!
And I suppose it raises the question of whether is at all relevant to the conversation… There are some things that are only at issue for art works. That’s its domain. And there are some issues that could be irrelevant because that’s art’s business. I always tend to try to not draw a line between the work art does and other things do––No!––I try to draw the line between what is necessarily an art work and what is necessarily not. I problematize that line.
CL It reminds me of your non-language versus language.
TN And the gallery versus non-gallery. Whether or not there is work only art can do and non-art can do I don’t know. That might be a non-question, that might just be an uninteresting query, I don’t know.
CL We’ll see! So––––is this a real world conversation the way an unpainted apple is a real world apple, which can still be eaten? In preparing some of these questions I kept coming back to the idea that I seem to be painting the apple that is our conversation.
TN It’s interesting, yes, because you’re not turning the interview into a representation of the interview.
CL No, not of an interview. But of something.
TN But is it turning the conversation into a representation of a conversation, is it a mock-conversation?
CL That’s what I’m curious about.
TN In this case you’ve kind of ‘pre-painted’ it, before it existed.
I think maybe we go through, in and out of, moderations of having a representative conversation, between conversation that’s kind of removed and a genuine conversation. Is that something that interests you, the distinction between when conversation is and isn’t…
CL It does sometimes! I hate to bring it up again, but just because I spent all day writing on Derrida, so it’s on my mind still: there’s this great documentary that was filmed on him in 2002 a couple of years before he died. They just had the film crew in his house shooting video of him almost at all times, and he wouldn’t stop returning to the fact that because of the presence of the film crew, he wasn’t living his life as he normally would.
TN Oh did they want him to just go about his life normally?
CL Exactly, they wanted to just capture what he normally did. But for instance he kept saying ‘this isn’t how I dress while I’m at home’, ‘usually I just leave on my robe’, ‘I wouldn’t be wearing a suit jacket’. I keep having that scene run through my head. It’s almost like bringing in and inviting that awkward third thing, letting it impose itself on what was going to go on rather naturally. Which is why I like how you’ve painted over your tools and everyday objects.
TN I’ve always been troubled by the videos of Jackson Pollock dripping the paint on the floor, because Abstract Expressionism has this certain moral imperative that somehow, given what you’re doing, you can’t make a visual or aesthetic assessment of the work as much as you can make something you might call a moral assessment. I’m trying to think of the name of this essay I was reading which referred to this specifically moral imperative, but it’s that you have to do it genuinely, you can’t do it in a cynical way. Because drip painting is specifically a relic, a recording of a set of movements. The movements have to be done in a certain spirit. They can’t be done just to record them. The essay I’m thinking of relates to how you record something, and the thing you’re recording has to be genuinely in the spirit of what you were doing at the time. Otherwise recording is somewhat pointless. So we can talk about this in some relation to this conversation
As to the film of Jackson Pollock painting, I was relieved to read at a recent Tate Modern exhibition, Painting After Performance, a little thing on the wall that said ‘Jackson Pollock was always uncomfortable about this video because he felt that it was a bit phony’. I was really relieved to see that, because if he’s being videoed doing it, like Derrida being filmed at home, it changes the situation and doesn’t refers to something specifically genuine. That’s not what you’re getting.
CL I always have had this one favorite photograph of what is more or less a Pollock work: it’s a photograph of the floor of his studio, whatever paint didn’t get onto his canvasses. I’ve always thought that was a beautiful picture…
TN But is there a gap?
CL I don’t know if there is one! I always have the temptation to think, or at least the wish, that there wasn’t a gap. That somehow, I would call the photo an artwork amongst his oeuvre, even if he didn’t take the photo…
TN And this is the question! This is the territory of my PhD, actually: which bits aren’t a part of the practice and which bits are.
CL Like your notes, for example.
TN Yeah! Yeah.
I mean, Giacometti’s [which?] studio wall has been exhibited… Do you preserve my studio if I die? Because some people’s studios have been! Brancusi’s studio has been preserved exactly as it was. He specified, actually, he asked that his studio be left exactly as it was the day he no longer walked into it. And it’s been moved to outside the Pompidou Center in Paris, but exactly like it was when he left it! Francis Bacon’s studio’s been moved–––including the dust!–––to Dublin. Lucien Freud’s studio has been closed up and contained within his home just because the person who was his assistant still lives there, clearly had a personal relationship with him and wants the studio to be respected. And of course there’s a kind of public outcry that there’s this national treasure, Lucien Freud’s studio, hidden to us. But isn’t that more fair as a closed-off thing, that it’s still kind of real as opposed to being a more theatrical production of itself? And keep the floor of Pollock’s studio! What does it mean to claim that that’s an artwork? Or Giacometti’s wall–––what does it mean to exhibit big print photographs of Jackson Pollock painting alongside the photograph, which I think has been done at the MOMA in New York. I think that’s very interesting!
CL What would it mean to–––and this is wild, I haven’t thought about this ever–––exhibit, say, cut off your hand and put that in a glass box?
TN Ough. . . Well, partly because it would mean that you couldn’t produce any more, is that what you were thinking?
CL No, not only that–––I was thinking the ancillary bits and paraphernalia, these marginal items which do make up the process of creating art… During that process, at what point does the “art” stop?
TN And that’s what really interests me. The “Keeping Time” video … that is specifically focused on this moment of production which in that piece I’ve kept, at the expense of the final image. So it’s a bit like keeping only the video of Pollock and not his making–––or better, actually, only his movements and not the thing he is making. But you can’t keep movements! This is the whole point!
It’s similar to how you can’t pause music and still hear it.
[A still from “Keeping Time”, for example, doesn’t express movement as film does]
CL Not literally hear it at least–––it still plays through my head.
TN No but you can’t pause that and still hear it as a static thing, because music has time. Even if it’s imaginary, because if you hold it still, you can’t hear it.
CL If I try to imagine Jackson Pollock’s movement, I can only play some frames in my head. It wouldn’t be the movement.
TN It all comes together very nicely! I find that in my practice I can tell its a coherent practice because it keeps coming round and round and round to the same thing. You can have a conversation that , for example, in English, that I find very satisfying. It shows that it’s a living thing with all of the organs contributing to it. That’s how you can tell that it’s alive and not Frankenstein.
CL I think this ‘living thing’ aspect to your work is very important. Speaking of living things, and personification to a certain extent, you had this great phrase which I immediately wrote down during your talk: you said that “the words were jealous of the book they were in”. And I’m thinking of what we were just saying about Jackson Pollock’s movements and paint in relation to his finished art pieces…
TN It’s interesting, I wouldn’t connect those two things. Maybe they are connected but I haven’t yet connected them in my mind.
CL I was thinking about what things are in their own context…
TN When the words were jealous of the book they were in, I was thinking about it in terms of the materiality of the work. Words are always material, they always have a physical shape and a physical sound and so on. But that physicality, that materiality, is kind of backgrounded by their semantic substance, by what they mean. Roland Barthes writes about this, the phonic substance is backgrounded, but what would happen if you were to foreground the phonic substance in front of meaning? And so I was imagining that the words were jealous of the book they were in because the words were trying to describe something material, they were trying to be among something material, they were trying to be part of, to contribute to, to cling to, keep something material. But their own materiality as words was being compromised by the fact that they have semantic content as well, and so, they were less material. Because they were only partially material things, failed, not strong material things in themselves, there was only so much closeness or proximity that they could manage to the other physical things. So it’s in that sense that they were jealous of the book they were in, because it’s fully material, and unproblematically connected to the other things.
The words were in language while the book was in the room.
In that sense I wouldn’t necessarily connect it to Pollock’s movements…
CL Well I wasn’t originally thinking of Pollock, but that’s where our conversation naturally moved to. I did connect the words’ jealousy though to this thing I keep coming back to, the painted brushes and so on. But not so much the representation-ality there, but the fact that you put these things back alongside all of your everyday tools and household items. I was thinking of how items, painted or not, have to be in their living context to operate, be usable, have function––like the words living in the book.
TN That’s interesting, the words are native to each other and native to language. Whereas the objects are not native to language but native to the room. They are different species or something like that. Not even different species but different orders of reality. I wouldn’t call them different species because that assumes that they’re all living on the same plane. Though they can act upon one another, so language can describe the things or the things can be described by the language. But I guess the point is that they can’t touch.
CL Well it’s just that separation I’m interested in here, because what I wanted to get to was your language vs. non-language. It seems to me that you’re after this ‘between space’, perhaps between a functional, living, breathing language, and a kind of non-language which reduces things to the basic fact of representations of themselves. You had this great line: “I’m trying to make language and non-language meet and dance within the pinpoint between the two.” And then you also describe the “choreography” of the tip of the pen! I wanted to prod you about this connection between dance and being at the tip of something. Because that can only have to do with this fact that you’re at the tip because you’re trying to get to this between space.
TN Yes, it’s as though they can only meet at these points… It’s like language and non-language seem to meet in a way, sadly, only superficially at certain points and little moments. For instance, that seminar where I saw the man moving his hands in circular motions, where it happened to have an exact linguistic analogue.
CL You also mentioned another example during your talk! You said “when you lick the pen”.
TN Yes, because that was a sort of sexual piece, there was a kind of sexual connection between the author and the protagonist. And this failed connection. Which is very interesting, since when you lick the pen the pen actually loses its ink for a while, it can’t even write.
CL And that’s because it’s also touching this thing with which we speak!
TN Yes, exactly, yeah! Which was remaining mute throughout the…
CL Right, here it wasn’t what was speaking, it was being functional in this weird way. Like how we imagine words to be functional, as objects we pick to do their thing.
TN That’s really true, yeah. Which relates now to the “Beaks” which you close by making them be pencil heads.
CL Right, right. Well we’ll get to that! But I wanted to press you on this: this is me, I can’t really refrain from doing this, but…
TN Do away!
CL You had this line, “language and non-language meet and dance within the pinpoint between the two”, which makes me immediately jump to something very silly: How many angels can you have dance on the head of a pin?
Essentially I wanted to ask you about something which you opened with, that you “love puns”, that you “believe in puns”. I couldn’t express to you how much puns mean to me, how I pun all day long and how it factors into all of my essays and sentences…
TN Ha! Do you know why? Have you thought about why you love puns so much?
CL Haha, well I have a personal history with them for one thing, which I won’t get into here, but I find puns and punning humor everywhere and in everything I observe. People call it the lowest form of humor, but I think that’s quite harsh. I find it the most useful form of humor–––I’ve drawn more connections with it between various aspects of the world, more than any other tool.
TN I mean, Derrida is a pun master–––but he sort of goes a bit over the top, making puns!
CL Part of why I love him, but you’re right, haha.
TN And I agree, and for the purposes of this talk there were so many puns. In the exhibition, ‘the drawing’, I had those drawers which I called “the drawing”… Because it’s just so productive, using the word “drawing”–––in the same way the apple was a representation of the apple, it’s a drawing of the drawers. Or the drawing of the room, as it turns the whole thing into a drawing of the room. So it makes the drawers into a gerund, so there’s a present continuous feeling of drawers, like they are drawing.
Why do we say “that’s a rabbit” and not “it’s rabbiting”? As opposed to “it’s raining” rather than “that’s rain”! We can ‘gerund-ify’ all sorts of things but sometimes we don’t! So why don’t we say “it’s drawing”, the drawers?
CL Haha, that’s great! I started all of this work, everything I study, from the comic Calvin & Hobbes. I would memorize these, say, at age 10, and there’s this one where Calvin is talking about “verb-ing” words, which you just described, to make a gerund out of it.
TN And you can “verb” ‘verbing’! Yeah, right! That’s lovely, I haven’t heard that before.
CL You had this one piece on the wall at The China Shop gallery that was a bunch of handles for various tools stuck together. Now I constantly use the phrase “to get a handle for something”, thinking about understanding and “grasping” things. And this was the piece I first connected to in there, I said “Look at all these, I definitely have a handle on this!”
TN Well it is this idea that if you grasp an idea or you get hold of an idea, you get a handle on it.
CL Right, because we’re most often going to be using the idea as a tool or an instrument to apply somewhere.
TN Yes, that’s right. I think this is what my Line to Antoine on the sheet was an attempt to grasp him. That’s why the words are jealous of the book, because the book was doing a better job of handling, relating to or gripping or grabbing the other materials. And so throughout the exhibition I was interested in trying to use words and lines as handles. That’s why the coat hanger has this straightened handle, and then the handle recurs in the Line Describing a Curve. So there’s this constant lines and words and drawing and actual handles finding this kind of parallel.
CL And I got a handle for the line describing a curve because the handle was missing from the hanger and it seemed to fit there, that aspect jumped out at me and made me see it as opposed to others.
TN I’m really glad that worked, because it’s a tiny gallery. Room for basically a paragraph and not an essay, so I was really trying to create a kind of tight network. This is why I think puns are so valuable as well, because they’re so productive…
CL They resonate, somehow.
TN They’re very concentrated. They’re economical.
CL While playful!
TN Because it’s such a tiny room, they do so much work. And the fact that these were called Pointers, handles as ‘pointers’, and those over there are more there as dots and points. You get this connection. If the points are a pencil actively trying to draw a line, from the pencil to the page, you get a dot. If these are two handles pointing to each other, they’re an apparatus just for pointing. They don’t do anything, pointing at pointing.
I guess that relates to the frustration of how there’s an eventual failure in this idea to try to make language and non-language meet at this pinpoint. They don’t, I think is the eventual thing. There’s this terrible death or loss.
CL But there is some movement around this pinpoint, don’t you think?
TN There is movement, but I don’t think that they’re ever going to cross over–––I really think that the pinpoint is a hole, I don’t think that they actually bleed through the membrane. I think that remains unperforated.
Although I’m trying really hard to perforate it!
CL Yes, I’ve been thinking about that. And because you’ve used the word perforated, I have to turn now to… Well, in this whole idea of language and non-language meeting and dancing at a pinpoint, I was hoping that you’d say that they don’t really meet and that there’s this hole… And maybe you’ll accept the idea that things turn around it, which is why I like your word “dance”, but I want to turn to your ‘book’, what is it, Olololo? It’s kind of what I just described in a material form! You’re creating a dot, with everything moving around it, a hole, and even the perforations you were describing are there.
TN That’s true! That’s true. I haven’t thought of it in that respect. Because to me, Olololo was really just a paper analogy for the “Keeping Time” video. They were commissioned as part of the same project, and the book came after the video and was funding for me to create a publication, so… But that’s very interesting to think of it in terms of that pinpoint and perforations.
CL Well say I wrote on those Olololo sheets and not on others, so that they’re just the sheets of paper itself, non-language somehow.
TN Ough! Imagine drawing on them!
CL Yes, I thought the whole thing was very clever without knowing what I found so clever about it. Especially once you described it! I like the fact that you end up with a dot.
TN It brought someone to tears, the dot! It’s interesting, I showed a friend the mock-up of the book in a café over a cup of tea. And I showed her, I said, “Okay, you hold the pencil here, you just move the paper, you do this.” And she worked through it, and it took her a couple of minutes, and she finished it. She picked up the pencil and there was just the dot. Somehow she was surprised that there was just a dot, because she felt that there had been so much movement. There’s this assumption that you’d be drawing a geometric shape somehow, and when she saw that there was just the dot there was such a kind of poverty of input, it was such a slight gesture, that there were tears! I thought it was quite striking!
CL I think that there should be emotion at that point! And when you said something along the lines of dancing at that pinpoint, that’s why I connected it to Olololo, because I think it’s very emotional when you’re at that point. That’s the spot where we emote like the living, breathing people that we are.
And I like that you brought up surprise, because I also liked this notion that you were ‘conducting people’. Especially in the cloakroom at the Tate. That was the space where you said people wouldn’t be “pseudo-surprised” by the art!
TN Yeah, and although we had them in 6 spaces throughout the Tate, I insisted that we had one which was as ‘un-Tate’ as possible. I think that did work the best. But I’m glad you bring in emotion as well, because I think this is something that comes out unabashedly in the sheet, in the Line to Antoine.
It’s the fact that I feel that there is no perforation: this is a profound loss. A profound lack or profound regret, that we have as human beings, because we’re rational being and have language.
CL And I don’t think we have to intellectualize this as much as some people do, that we can bring it back to bouncing off of others in terms of emotions.
TN Yes, and I think that the fact that we have language as human beings separates us from things like sheep which I feel are so much more in the world. They’re just chewing grass, looking around, actually participating in the world rather than acting upon it. It’s as though humans, being the linguistic animals, are acting upon the world whereas nonlinguistic animals act within and as part of it. Like Pinheiro Machado says that language is this bridge which we try to erect to bridge this barrier or gap between language and non-language, between ourselves and representations when in fact there isn’t a gap.
CL It’s like the Tower of Babel in a sense.
TN Yes, it is. Yes, it is: it’s the Fall. Or what the Fall’s story is referring to, the fact that we are rational, we have free will. We try to connect to that other thing. And the animals don’t try to do this because they’re already connected.
You can read Nietzsche about his cows…
CL Hahaha, I do. So this point of emotion, living in it, being in it, along with the history of this point, this pinpoint which you could take in a lot of different ways but mostly between language and non-language…
TN You could call the point the Fall.
CL And I think I would! But you talk about “the graphological life of the pen”, and you use this word, “life”. That is what made, for instance, the Beaks thing work, that you ascribe life to that point at the tip of the writing utensil. There is in some sense life at this spot where non-language–––for example, the pen, physically––gives rise to language through use, through function, acting upon the world as you say. And it does this through living with it, through it being attached to its everyday context. We’re in a world where we can use whatever language we know, just in the same way that your pens are also in the world with, say, a box of fellow pens, the way the spoon is with other silverware. It’s in its space. You can use it, functionally. And all of a sudden it’s living and breathing. But it’s still this point, where now the magic of language is happening or moving around it.
TN That’s right, it’s magic–––I was going to use this word too. I mean, I don’t like the word magic…
CL It’s a great word that’s growing on me, despite some of its connotations…
TN The point of the pen, it’s wet, that’s the magic point. It’s got life in it. And when it goes dry it doesn’t work anymore. There is this fluidity that we associate with life.
CL And there’s the death of the pen with this dryness. I think that’s where the Beaks come in.
TN Yeah, and I think it is very satisfying that there are these things like water that literally embody the meeting point between what is and isn’t representational. This gesture, the circular gesture, and the wet nib of the pen…
In fact there’s a video I’m working on at the moment with an Italian project which is going to be something like “Keeping Time” but with music. There’s a pianist, and as she plays keys the camera is going to follow exactly where the finger is. So the effect will be a lot of very, very short cuts. It’s very difficult to describe, so maybe it’s better to just show you the video when it’s made in about six months. But I think that’s another meeting point where the finger touches a key, an analogous meeting point–––though I wouldn’t go too far with this analogy because it’s bringing it into music rather than language. I think music, while it’s a mimetic representation of a thing, it doesn’t represent in the same way language does. So that might cloud the issue. Still! Let’s talk again when that comes out.
CL Do you have any more to say on the Line Describing a Curve? If the wet pen is where the magic of language happens, I’m thinking that, more than the pen even, it’s the movement, it’s the oriented directional relations going on. And I think this movement is what might relate it to music… But I don’t have the right word there, yet there is this describing of the curve, of this curving and movement. The line describing the curve is almost as much that point as the pen tip, as if they both occupy this life and space.
TN Oh I see what you mean, the line itself is the curve, but it’s also describing the curve.
CL Yes, it’s somewhere between the line itself and the pen tip that this point is.
TN It’s like an apple that’s also painted red rather than only being painted red. That’s what it is, isn’t it! It’s like a circle that’s also a representation of a circle… Reminds me of Plato or something like that.
CL Well, if we wanted to bring it to Nietzsche, for example, it’s almost like this point we’ve been describing is the point where Being and Becoming are somewhat put together. That’s what I find so interesting about this place. It’s this great transition point which is linguistic, form-following, shaped, and structured–––but not too much so that it’s reduced to something absolute or objective and true in any way. Instead it moves to method, to action and application…
TN Yeah, and it seems to be, I think, that it just needs to stay within materiality, in the material world with stuff. That’s why I made the video of the vinyl peeling off and sticking down in a group. I think that all this–––and this is it!–––needs to be made of physical stuff that’s around the house. I think the vinyl actually was the only thing in the exhibition which wasn’t physical stuff I have around the house. And I think that’s why I felt part of the reason I wanted to make that video, because then that vinyl was some stuff I actually had.
CL I didn’t think about this, it’s interesting what you do or don’t have in your house. You don’t have a gallery in your house–––and that’s almost what makes it feel so strange and distant. Whenever you step into one it becomes a very foreign place, almost the way that the material vinyl is foreign to your house at first.
TN I do think that the gallery space has a lot in common with the linguistic space. I really think that that connection is strong. And I wonder: you can’t walk into words. You don’t have words in your house the same way that you have things. I mean, you have books, you have words written down, but you don’t have actual signifiers.
And I think what’s interesting what happens when you make an artwork, there’s a point where you start having to handle it with white gloves. It becomes an artwork, and you lean it up against the wall of your studio and it’s sparkling, it’s winking as a finished artwork–––and then it goes into the gallery and it really is different. You could call it dead, you could call it whatever.
CL I use the word ‘sterilized’ sometimes. Like the white gloves comment.
TN Right. And then mausoleum/museum. And I think what happens when you purchase an artwork and put it in your home, in a domestic space–––assuming that you don’t have a gallery-type home, white cube and modernist–––then it becomes a functional object. Although there is something special about having original pieces of artwork in your home and living with them, people say it’s like having another person there or like a fire.
CL Well I’m sure you live with your own original artwork. Does the fact that it’s yours make that any different?
TN I think that there’s something different about the way that I live with my artworks because I chuck them on the floor. For instance, that coat hanger is in a bag. It all packs into a bag–––and then I take out all of the utensils I hung and and stuck them back onto my spatulas and things I’ve got. So for me…
CL I really like the fact that you really live with your stuff.
TN Because it is literally stuff. The handles go back on the drawers.
The sheet’s still folded up and is still like that, and actually that plinth I’m going to collect from the gallery because it goes with it. It’s kind of an art - work. It might be that we wash the sheet and everything, but I like that, I think I’m going to keep it. Which is annoying for me because ‘where am I going to put it?’. It’s annoying. And I’ve got some other artworks that I’ve had to keep–––and that’s a bit annoying, that they’re in boxes. I’d prefer to just be able to reintegrate them into life. But I have to be careful with that, since there’s this sort of aesthetic thrill in discarding artworks, in not giving them the care that is established that one usually has with artworks. It’s tricky.
CL Yes, you romanticize that aspect.
TN You can, yeah.
CL Well we have to get to the Beaks, which I can tell you really enjoy. I remember the way your voice raised when you first brought that up, the inflection was great…
TN I did! I made them about two days before the exhibition opened.
CL And you didn’t just sharpen and cut the same pencil–––
TN –––And I cut several pencils, stupidly. I’ve actually still got them and haven’t sharpened them! Oh, and Sarah, a friend of mine, asked if I had any that she could buy. And just do them yourself! You don’t need to buy them, just get a pencil and cut it! And she said, “No, I want them from the artist. I want the art ones.” Which is a really interesting thing when people say “Can I buy that?” I often say “Just do it yourself.”
Which you can romanticize the way I wound up just taking these things and throwing them. But I remember once I did a painting on some canvas and I wanted to test it, somehow, and I remember just chucking it on the floor just to test it as an object. I find it very instinctive to just throw it on the floor to see what it looks like. That was many years ago, and quite an important thing, actually.
CL I once wrote an extremely long paper on Nietzsche, a hundred pages or so. And I printed it out and my first thought was to throw it across the room to see what happens, to test the weight.
TN All the pages separate?!
CL No, no, I stapled it. But I remember the feeling of it landing. And if it was just one sheet of paper it wouldn’t have gone as far.
TN Oh that’s wonderful! It’s real, it’s like a thing! Lovely, that’s really nice. But it’s true! These things are objects, and I guess partly you wanted to throw it because you made an object, a finished thing.
CL Yes, and at that point you can use it, you do something with it! It doesn’t have to be functional insofar as you have a goal, but you can still use it not for something, but as something. As a material object.
That’s why I love the pieces of collage, what do you think about collage? I collect little bits and pieces and put them together…
TN It’s an interesting genre of things… Do you like to use things that have a bit of wear, that have age? Why is that?
CL Well I have to say that I’m a very nostalgic person, but what’s weird is that I’m quite nostalgic for a time period I didn’t live in. And I only really overcome it when I start playing with the things I’m nostalgic about.
TN Well I think that’s a known thing, that it’s a feeling of nostalgia that people have. I think it relates to this used quality, broken utensils like with broken utensils in Maurice Blanchot and André Breton. Broken utensils–––and then in Heidegger–––when an object appears in it’s being broken, disappears into its function, into its use. And I wonder whether there’s something about the nostalgia and effectively the brokenness, the social brokenness of these things. They no longer apply, and it makes them appear.
CL Yes, I think that I do romanticize the things that are broken–––often to such a degree that I miss how the thing was when it was useful, when it was real or how people lived with things. There’s definitely this lived-ness quality that goes into the used and broken.
TN And it’s interesting, when you look at people like Picasso, their collages. They were made of stuff, but stuff that was current at the time, which I find very, very interesting as an aesthetic decision.
These broken utensils–––it’s the same thing when you bring them into the gallery–––they lose their function. When something leaves the studio and goes into the gallery, it dies, it’s broken, or no longer is functional. But the Beaks! We digress.
CL Yes, you said that beaks “eat, sing and breathe”–––which is where I got that ‘living, breathing’ thing I’ve been working with here. But with the pencil tips, they’re “closed” pencils which “can’t eat and die”. I remember being struck by the word “die”. Because they’re not as living, breathing and functional as the language which links the pencil tip to the contextually physical world around it. The language is what has the life, the turning around the point. Naming them “Beaks” hasn’t really changed anything about them in this case too–––I think that’s very important.
TN I’m really interested in that piece, because originally, it actually began with some drawings which I called “beaks” in which I drew a drawing of the tip of a biro. And there’s a point at which here, the drawing and the biro-tip are touching exactly. And I drew some pencil tips and I called them “beaks”. So it began as a drawing which I then decided to make as objects. The drawing’s interesting because it’s where the tip and the representative image are touching at a certain point.
But I’m really struck by this idea that there is something about death or muteness or frustration in this inability to get through and puncture this membrane. If the beaks can’t open and can’t eat, then the bird dies. If you can’t open your beak to sing, because it’s a pencil, maybe you could train yourself to write. But then you would be moving your head in the shape of letters, which would be absurd and bizarre and ridiculous. But you could communicate, you’d be instrumentalizing your entire body with shapes of your head, as a bird, to create words. Which I find a hilarious situation!
It’s a foreign language! And British Sign Language isn’t English turned into signs, it’s more similar to elements of Swahili or Dutch than to English. So I think it’s this idea of encroaching on the materiality of the shapes of the words with your own physical materiality. You instrumentalize your own physical material. I mean, there’s always a mimetic relationship when you draw a picture. If I draw you, my hand and pen has to move in the same shape as you: and my hand is moving so I have to move in the same shape. So I’ve done a set of movements that relate to your own shape. And also there’s your shape on the paper and all these things. So there’s a mimetic relationship that always goes on when you draw, but I think it’s different to the things that you write. Which would be instrumentalizing it’s shape, something like that. Which I find hilarious! And sad, desperate.
CL It is very much like a joke! I’m now thinking of making a handprint in the sand, and then putting your hand back into the hole you’ve made. There’s something more primal than the drawing, the hand…
CL Which brings us back to Richard Long, who we were talking about earlier. He does a lot of that, working with handprints. But it would be weird if he put his hand back on the handprint…
TN Yeah, that’s true. But he will move a pebble somewhere and swap around pebbles, and then there’s some kind of a ‘putting back’.
CL I probably like that the most out of his work, that he dismantles these works he does outside and puts the sticks and stones back. It’s like you rearranging the stuff in your house but putting them back after giving some a little bit of a more privileged status, temporarily, which makes them useless. Or at least no longer what they were prior. Long’s rocks are, sad to say, in a way representations of rocks once he’s moved them into the circle. By giving them form and putting them in a group in a circle…
TN And he’s funny with representation, since he does take these gorgeous photos, reproduced with gorgeous, gorgeous text, which are very attractively laid out.
CL He calls them “textworks”, yeah.
TN And the typography, the font, is very carefully chosen. And I find that interesting and in some ways problematic in the same way that taking photographs of performances is in some way problematic. But I think Richard Long’s work has moved along a lot and is now more and more about the photo and the text, and the layout. And if he pretends it’s otherwise he’s pretending.
CL Well he says that it would’ve been useless for him to make his art if he didn’t have the camera to show people what he’s done. That’s the only thing that brings what he does into language, into the art discourse.
TN Because I was told recently that as a student–––because he started his work very early on, obviously–––he would just bring out a cigarette box or matchbox and say “Hey, look what I did the other day!” And he just showed these pictures, he just took snapshots to show his mates and then he put them back in. Which I think is interesting, how much that was performative.
CL Because there’s already the performance of, say, this eight-day walk into Outer Mongolia.
TN I love how you’ve drawn this thread, how it’s all come together.
CL Thanks! Well, I had this one closing thought which I scribbled down here: I was wondering if you could draw a line in my notebook for me.
TN I would be glad to!
CL And you can use your pen or my pen, whichever you like.
TN Well I’m going to use my pen. Okay, I think it’s like this. There you are. That line–––I’ve tried to recreate the line from Tristram Shandy from memory. And I don’t think it’s very good that line–––though it has to stay–––I really like the idea though that I’ve created that from memory, because that line I’ve tried to draw… It was a novel written in the 19th Century, but it was a line describing the way in which the corporal moved his stick: he moved his stick thus. And there’s this line! And so that line means that he literally moved his stick like that, which I find so interesting! It’s incredibly avant-garde to do that in a 19th Century novel. But what’s funny is that I’ve got another copy of that book in which it’s been typeset differently, and that line has been squashed a bit by the editor: he’s obviously redrawn it, not realizing that this means that the corporal’s gesture is quite different. I’m going to write something about that.
[turns off recording device #1]
CL I was also wondering, or just thought of this–––given that we’ve not only been talking about lines but of words...
TN ...Are you going to regret that? Stopping the recording?
TN I guess you’ve drawn a line.
CL Yes, I thought, “Well, you have to draw the line somewhere…”
TN Very nice!
CL Haha, I wasn’t going to say anything, but you brought it up!
Anyway, would you also write your name down somewhere here?
TN Would I? Do I have a choice? I’m trying to decide what the effect would be, writing my name…
CL Well I’ve already written here, above the line you’ve drawn on the same page… And then there’s this dot which was an accidental mark… Oh thank you! I like that! You put it with the other words! Just what I’ve been talking about!
TN I had to put it where it was native!! Where it belonged! Hahahaha. . .
CL Well thank you, I love that…
TN Well it was a tremendous pleasure, thank you very much! I’m really looking forward to you transcribing it…
[turns off recording device #2]