In between unpacking boxes of camera tripods, assembing birds feet, fiddling with digital cameras and fixing coils of cabling to the floor, I managed to pin down the artist Emma Hart to discuss ‘TO DO’, an exhibition of performative videos and sculptural assemblages which asks the viewer to step up and take action. The exhibition was held at OUTPOST Gallery in Norwich from 2 - 26 May 2012, and is a touring show from Matt’s Gallery, London.
Amy Budd: The regimented arrangement of your small army of ‘birds’ at OUTPOST is different to the previous iteration of the exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, London, where you displayed a larger number of these works in a circle. Why have you changed the composition of the exhibition for OUTPOST, and also, how have you reached this smaller selection of the birds?
Emma Hart: I will always be still working on and working out TO DO. Each presentation of the work (this is only the second) will be a chance for me to push and pull at it and learn more of what it does. Therefore I did not come to OUTPOST with any plan. I hate arranging things. I want to land on processes or structures that mean composition takes care of itself. The formation emerged, and then came some afterthoughts. a) That they were laid out how a flock of birds fly together and b) that the doors at OUTPOST reminded me of hospital doors, or worse asylum doors - worth escaping from. With the selection of the sculptures (15 out of 27) I improvised. I don’t want to have favourites.
AB: You re-appropriate cameras to display pre-recorded material and live action, rather than allowing them to quietly record what is in front of them. As an artist who has previously worked in performance, what was your decision is taking this position and letting the cameras become the facilitators of action in the space?
EH: I am always working on a set of questions - How can the informative be smashed? How can the apparatus’ that make documents/information/ representations be made to make presentations/experiences/actions? Previously these questions have led me to work live with video, and now I am still working live but I’m just not there. I have found though, the moving image has a habit of turning questions into answers. The video artist always knows what the viewer is looking at. They know, for example, that at 3mins 33secs into their video the viewer will be looking at the image they put on the editing timeline at that point. The artist is in charge. I find this the opposite of a live situation and something to work against. Making sculpture offers me a method to interfere with the viewing experience. I want to work with video and complicate its viewing by sticking things to it, so it is encountered in a new awkward incomplete way. I want to make work that is detailed, complex and excessive so that I cannot be sure what bits people have seen. This is something I am only just beginning.
AB: The sculptures are wilfully absurd hybrid creations, incorporating avian feet, found objects, feathers, high-vis fabric, and paper birds all produced using a distinctly DIY aesthetic. Did you have a preconceived idea what they would look like, or did they materialise only after making the films, and then attempting to find a physical image within which to position them?
EH: I made all the sculptures (with help) by hand. I did them (mostly) myself. Is that a DIY aesthetic? Working with my hands is important; making lumpy sticky uncertain videos is something I do. I discovered I treat all materials the same whether video or high vis vests. I go into them. Nothing was “found”, all the objects were mine. I had bought the dictionaries ten years ago, to make an artwork with; finally it showed up. Dictionaries are indexical, are they photographs? Cameras are hoovers sucking things up. Photographs are irons, flattening things out. Cameras are X’s, marking the spot. Photographs are stains. Time is in a line and so is washing. Much of the stuff in the show has come from thinking about the behaviour of the photographic document. I made the sculptures with immediacy, flashes in the moment, working instinctively with no sketches or plans but with long To Do idea lists flapping around my head. I made the sculptures first and the videos second.
AB: As much as the work embraces sculpture and performance, it is also an immersive sound installation, where recordings of speech incessantly repeat to imitate bird song. Are these calls are for the audience to respond to, or rather do they serve a purpose for yourself as the artist, commanding you to take action in your own practice?
EH: The videos were mostly made by producing visual material, say a slide show, assigning words plucked from the everyday to an image in the slideshow, and then getting someone to control the order and speed of the slide show. When an imaged appeared I would respond with the assigned word. I was played like an instrument. I think I started out with the idea of these being commands, intended for the person in front of the camera but this soon degenerated, as imagination and chaos got their claws into the tasks.
AB: Finally, Leigh (Sneade) mentioned to me that you’re a keen bird watcher. Was this interest the starting point for this particular body ofwork?
EH: I want to make works that are raw, unfiltered big blasts of energy. My practice is becoming a fight against the certain, informative and measured. I realised that to do this I should make work about something I love. I LOVE BIRDS. This is possibly a naive approach, but one that I found clears paths into the imagination and gets into energy stores.