April Fool's Interview

Alan Alborough (AA) and Colin Richards (CR) in conversation, 01 April 1996
From White Elephant (Unpublished)
Printed in NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, Summer/Fall 1997

The archetypal collection is Noah's Ark, a world which is representative yet erases its context of origin. The world of the ark is a world not of nostalgia but of anticipation. While the earth and its redundancies are destroyed, the collection maintains its integrity and boundary. Once the object is completely severed from its origin, it is possible to generate a new series, to start again... What Noah rescues from oblivion is the two that is plus one, the two that can generate seriality and infinity by the symmetrical joining of asymmetry... the point of collecting is forgetting - starting again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie. (Susan Stewart, On Longing)

These fragments of conversation occurred in a room, a place of (re)collections. The structure and focus of the conversation was provided by the room, but it offered infinitely more than an accommodating ambience. It offered grist for the mill of meaning, an arena for dramatising the whole question of speaking about art, that artificial staging of interpretative acts which, however modest, so often seem to deny the 'sensuous particulars' of the visual work. Such talk so often turns one's head from the object. So, we become agnostic about that which we value most highly.

An artist talking raises the stakes. The authority that clings to the words of the artist, the words on which we all hang to relieve us from the confusing labour of working at interpretation, seems impossible to void. Yet, whatever the dangers and desires harboured by the artist's words, it remains critical to hear what he (in this case) thinks of - or 'about' - his work.

As an artwork, the room is titled: ROOM 6 or RULES OF LEXICON or (RED HERRING) (1996). Being an artwork, it beggars description. Your experience of it 'begins' simply enough when you walk through a door. Then things get complicated. Your entry is announced by a doorbell chiming and a light switching on. There are other sounds: static-laden, wavering ice-cream-van music, cuckoo-clock chimes, unidentifiable 'noise'. If you stand still too long, the light switches off. You, and the 'works' around you, are plunged into gloom. The act of looking requires concentrated labour. One is aware of one's body, of being 'noticed', recorded.

And the remaining contents? What remains recalls those medieval encyclopaedias which contain many and varied oddities, organised according to now cryptic or eccentric systems of classification; the logic of the heap, the spatial dynamics of the museum, the lexical complexity of the list. This particular museum feels 'mortuary', a diaramic post-mortem of a world. Yet it also feels oddly manic, unstable, secretly vital. Mortuary suggests death, inertia, the melancholy of history. Instability and the rest is a sign of life, the vividly contingent, the dynamic, the new. Time lost, borrowed, promised, dominates the space.

Objects, banal and magical, handmade and found, are invariably tampered with. Materials are collected together, related, displayed through myriad means: stitching, bundling, bottling, hanging, nesting. Materials are poured, sifted, filtered, burned and stained. There are intimations of cool violence, not to be made too much of. Violence lies inert in objects, socially and historically resonant and hence too easy to read. Red herrings perhaps? But, oddly, these same objects - knives, quirts, a bandaged baton - are also socially disembodied, sanitised, dislocated. Processes, too, point to violation - shattering, burning, suturing, nailing, pinning. Traces almost absent jostle with aesthetic rough trade, handcuffs, whips... There are terse signs, the polysemic 'x', numbers, names on labels, labels upon labels. The room betrays a measured passion. For Walter Benjamin, "every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories... These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness." The accumulator "studies and loves his [objects of desire] as the scene, the stage, of their fate".

One image from the space lingers, torn from the shadow of others: the image of bundles of keys. No locks in sight. ROOM 6 no longer exists as such; its dismembered parts recovered for any number of memorable works, or subject to what the artist calls "the hearsayness of recall", or simply forgotten. A reliquary for the millennium. (CR)

Room 6: Part 1

AA The room is an accumulation of material, which pre-existed in other manifestations. It is part of a continuous process of trying to deal with residue from past activities. The material here mostly dates back to my time at university and suggests a reference, a beginning, but you can't be that specific. On a wall of my previous studio I collected things that resonated, or contained information, in one space, whether they had any direct bearing on what I was doing or not doing at that time. When I moved, most of that material was kept and re-articulated in this space. Some was discarded. Thus the room contains references to all we might want to talk about, a context in present time for things that have happened, evidence of what had happened, a sign for what might happen, a 'kernel' to be picked at. If you are looking for connections, thematic directions or whatever, the material is here. It has a history. But the room is not all things either. One could identify an object, 'track' that object to a specific event or work. But then equally there are others that can't be tracked. It connects to ways I think. Objects embody thought processes. Why I find them interesting isn't necessarily only because of what they look like, but also what they represent or how they represent that, whether through the material, or the means of construction, or...

CR ...associations?... Or where they come from?...

AA ...Possibly... And what comes from linking, putting things together, and the accumulation of information. Juxtapositions and placements which might happen gratuitously to begin with lead to other motivated connections. This room isn't just random collecting. A rampant randomness might be apparent, but things are categorised, separated, put with other things because of their connectedness and what their associations could mean. Equally, there is also a visual, formal element.

CR Yet looking at this room is like looking at the world itself, in process. You make meaning in it, not of it. Things are hidden, invisible, obvious. There's past, then there's present, then there's future. It's as if accumulating numberless complex things in a room is a means of dealing with information, sensations, emotions. Many languages are at work: 'purely' visual, networks of associations infiltrating from the source of the object, the 'public persona' of the object. You insist on a logic, including 'arbitrariness'...?

AA One sometimes has to stress that there is a logic, otherwise the implications are fairly severe. Whether one tries to justify that logic by finding a conventional rationale, or whether there is in fact a rationale, is difficult to see. I suppose there definitely is a particular rationale... I don't know how one gains control over meaning or the construction of meaning. The room provides a space in which things are acted out and played with... or not. It is a tactile and visual notebook, and runs in conjunction with a set of notebooks, though there isn't a clear connection between the two. Similar ideas being recorded in the notebooks are being recorded differently by accumulation and placement in the room. Even within the notebooks, it isn't about explaining, but about accumulating ideas and exploring outwards. The room involves a similar process, but through physical objects. It allows one to play with viewer interaction.

CR Many ideas come to mind here. Some to do with meaning as visually legible, systematically codified, concrete communication. Others, perhaps opposing, to do with more-or-less radical arbitrariness, the corrosive work of simultaneous assertion and denial, of giving and taking away, of tension between elementary order and chaos...

AA If I could interrupt. There is no arbitrariness, only the implication of arbitrariness...

Observations by an Observer I: Control
My desire for visual control is at risk immediately I enter the space. I obstinately maintain my way of seeing. Wilfully ignoring other things, I focus on a particular object - a soccer ball that has been broken open, turned inside out. But this meditation cannot continue undisturbed. I persist with my interrogative 'eye', calculating that you have to move to get the light back on. So I move just enough. I try to shut sound out. I try not to feel the air on my skin. I cut myself off. All this, simply to maintain my way of seeing one wrong way round soccer ball, one item in a multitude. There is a paranoid, oppressive element here, too easy to interpret in the South African context. I cannot stabilise myself or the visual field. I am allowed choices, but only for so long, only so many. I am ultimately forced back on an oddly insulated, fugitive consciousness of my 'self', occupying a threshold of perceptual stability, between noticing and passing over, meaning and nonsense, freedom and constraint... How to settle down? How does one deal with things which engage one? How does one select and process information? How long do you need to do this? How much light? How much silence? At what cost? All we take for granted in experience become questions.

Room 6: Part 2

CR As you have structured the room, it is vital for a viewer to move continually on many levels. If you don't physically move (and metaphorically, in other ways), the light goes off. It gets too dark to see. Things 'disappear'. Then your eyes adjust to the gloom. You see things in a different light. Entering this space you are almost immediately forced to view things in conditions which interrupt and shift your focus. Normally, for example, one might assume a meditative, reflective, even passive 'mind's eye'. The room invites but doesn't really support this attitude. Interruption generates tension. One cannot even come to grips with the basic conditions of looking...

AA Whatever 'coming to grips' is, what does happen is an intensified consciousness of how people make sense of the space. Some might work systematically around the space. Some might never touch anything. Others might touch almost everything they see. This space 'talks about' the viewer. The room is also a passage, which itself allows different levels of engagement. It has, for example, a 'seat' structure in the middle. If one wanted to sit down and meditate with no movement, no light, one could. But there is a spy-hole centred in the cushion near the stool. One might suppose that looking at the space through this aperture gives the 'key' to the room. This, in turn, is undermined by the lights going off as one stands motionless looking through the 'keyhole'... These are calculated strategies to disturb whatever reading a viewer wants to make... I have always looked at strategies for involving a viewer in the work. But, if one gets too specific with these strategies, you run the risk of becoming programmatic. Yet in being specific you try to ensure there is engagement. Even loose structure can maintain engagement without being dictatorial.

Observations by an Observer II: Authority
In documenting and speaking about work, a particular 'text' becomes the authority. That authority is problematic. Looking back at my first solo exhibition (1992), there were demands on me I did not expect. Having made the works, I didn't think I would have to talk about them, answer questions - questions, not so much about 'what it means', but rather requests for confirmation. In responding to these, a body of information developed. Now we no longer have a first-hand experience of the works. Time has passed, as has that way of looking at those works. If one looks now at just that information it seems quite rarefied and abstract. It doesn't represent the actual complexity in the looking. This is a problem, talking about things that one has chosen to make and not talk about.

Room 6: Part 3

AA In an earlier work, Installation: Fulfil; Force; Fear; Faith (1993), heat and light disturbed experience. You couldn't have a passive relationship to the space. But it isn't just on that level that this happens. The lights wouldn't have worked if they hadn't had the foil of the burnt South African pine. The light was absorbed into these black pits, these 'texts' which were difficult to read. The 'disturbed' object was used to engage - or force - whoever was looking to locate themselves personally in relation to what they saw. One couldn't simply switch off, and think 'I didn't even see that'. There is an immediate sensory interaction. I don't see this is an end in itself. This 'manipulation' could become a cheap trick, a piece of showmanship. I am very aware of this. Material in ROOM 6 undermines this possibility. The ice-cream-truck music, the christmas lights, present a hopefully ironic, even light-hearted view of that same experience. You can come in here and be as serious as you like... Whatever your thinking, you are going to be disturbed in that thinking. There is a tension between different possibilities of dealing with the space. If I say humour or irony is foremost, an entire other level of experience is denied. This again presents the difficulty of exactly how one speaks about things. If I were to highlight something as primary, then I would be concerned that this emphasis would cancel out some other possibility.

CR You seem very sensitive about 'authorising' a lopsided view of your work. Yet you also find it difficult not to concede that that 'lopsidedness' is perhaps in the nature of the beast of interpretation.

AA It depends who 'lopsides' it. And why. I suppose it's ultimately about power. Maybe being vehement in one direction positions me in relation to other ways of making meaning in the work. I have to be careful here. If meaning is only recoverable in explanation, this is a failure. If a viewer finds no way of achieving meaning in the work without external 'explanation', then whatever it was I was trying to do would be defeated. This might be about implicitly acknowledging the responsibility of - or a respect for - the viewer. That is respecting the viewer and recognising the responsibility of the viewer in making meaning. It is not for me to identify essential information, but present a structured field in which meanings can be explored...

CR ... and if you don't get it, you don't get it?

AA It's not about not getting it. Or if it is about getting it, it's about getting it in such a way that it expands, challenges, makes one self-conscious about how one got it. And, having got it, what does it mean to have it? And what do you do with it?

CR My immediate thought is to map this 'respect for the viewer' onto the viewer's respect for the work. Is this not where responsibility might come in?

AA There's probably another word for responsibility... It is more about respect. Rather than presume the lowest common denominator in the viewer, one should presuppose the complexity of the viewer, respect and then maybe tamper with that complexity. The viewer is as complex as the artist. I haven't necessarily got anything transcendental to communicate. But I do have a desire to construct things, to communicate ideas and sensations in a specific way. It's all about a desire for communication, I suppose. I have chosen a visual orientation for that communication.

Observations by an Observer III: Control
It is excessive. I cannot concentrate. You need to attend to specific things, 'sensuous particulars', to feel truly present, wholly engaged. One can't attend to all at once. That's insanity. One is confronted by a veritable world. If asked to 'explain' the world, one could only remain silent, or mumble interminably...

Room 6: Part 4

AA An excess of material relates to having to deal with extremities... If one had to deal with everything simultaneously, one could come undone. Is this material an exposé of my mental state or is it a calculated manipulation of stereotyped manifestations of certain mental states? If you look at popular representations of obsessive behaviour, in movies for example, you see rituals of accumulation, packing, ordering, systems... Somebody could look at the room and think diagnostically. That straightaway presupposes looking for pathology, which says a lot about who is looking... Whatever is 'obsessive' about this space is self-conscious. Equally, the fairground attitude, the ice-cream truck and the christmas lights also have specific emotional keys. These are calculated. Also, the so-called 'pathological' obsessive compulsive state is very much linked to making sense, or about control, or dealing with things. By accumulation, placement, organisation, you find tangible ways of dealing with internal or intangible states. That process is being self-consciously worked here. It also buys into preconceived ideas about creativity and artistic production. What are the limits to which one can go? How far can you go with the viewer?

CR Let's not look at 'symptoms' from some Archimedean still-point untouched by 'pathology'. If one is to stop oneself disintegrating, feeling meaningless, enacting what perhaps is currently generally called the 'crisis of the subject', then a certain pressure to be decisive seems forced on the viewer...

AA Being self-conscious about 'symptoms', using them as a 'language' and allowing the viewer to interact with them, tests some fundamental thresholds. Why would anyone find this space compelling? Perhaps because it homes in, to some degree, on each person's own 'psychosis'. Somewhere in the accumulation is an association, or an edge, somebody has been close to. Maybe the room stimulates a 'pathological' undercurrent in all of us. I am using that paradigm here. In earlier works I used a medical paradigm in a similar way, more as intrusion than pathology. Everybody has probably experienced medical intrusion. This same experience could be extrapolated into the extremes of violence, surveillance, interrogation... anything. Experience is only classified as 'pathology' when extreme but it is always present. Like it or not, being challenged by the material brings these things up.

Observations by an Observer IV: Pleasure
I remain struck by the great care taken in the making itself. There is a real presence of skill, a working finesse in which head, heart, hand, all figure. This appears in your idea of trace, in the way you articulate a surface, manipulate relations. The connections you materially make - the tying, the knotting - the processes you engage in - the dripping, the containing - are aesthetically provocative.

Room 6: Part 5

CR Moving away from 'negative' power, from losing control, going insane, towards pleasure, seduction, I want to look again at specific processes you use - stitching, pinning, binding. The 'medal', for example, looks more like a religious relic than a military or medical symbol worn on a uniform. There is something exquisitely touching, felt and spare about the image; the cross, the deep red field, the small leaden weights attached to the corners giving an elegant gravity to that field. But there are also intimations of pain. The cruelties of conformity (freely chosen?) betokened by public insignia, like badges. Objects are pinned, shattered, hessian is cut like skin, flaps pinned back as in a surgical operation. There is a pathetic resonance in both processes and imagery which complicates one's own sense of bodily integrity, the fragility and violability of that integrity. Here, and in earlier work, this feeling of tenuous boundaries, of the edge of a body, of what's contained, what exposed, projections and introjections is marked. And all this in a very cool mode. A sentiment of detachment. Beauty with cruelty. Your work, in dramatising a cerebral sensuality, reminds me of something William Blake said: "A tear is an intellectual thing." The worlds of feeling and thinking are not easily separated. Yet exactly this separation is often assumed in talking about the art object. Talk of the 'aesthetic' commonly belittles cerebration in favour of some fancied 'pure sensation'. Today the reverse also seems common, especially with the current fetishisation of the 'conceptual' as formatted in contemporary installation work.

AA One cannot necessarily separate these things, nor can they necessarily be looked at together. Maybe it's more like a network that keeps everything interconnected. The point at which you enter the network and start looking determines the connections. If you go further you'll find other levels of connectedness. The 'aesthetic' is the most primary level of connection, of interaction, the initial point of entry into any visual experience. For the show where I used the children's games (Everard Read Contemporary, 1992) the 'aesthetic' was very important. The materials in the raw weren't 'art' objects. One way to ensure an engagement with the material as 'art' was through how things were constructed. This gets complex, because the material functions on an equally primary level as a 'raw' signifier. Material and construction can be separate, but should work together. So it is about what things look like, and about the presumption you make when you use 'beauty'. But 'beauty' has major value associations. I would want to talk about it in a far more neutral sense. Material and construction can be turned on their heads, but the 'aesthetic' remains the first level of engagement. If you engage somebody on that level, then you can push the limits. I don't necessarily still work in this way... The aesthetic has to shift, or it stays in one system. For example, the telegram, Kill the Messenger (1994), was perceived as a very 'unaesthetic' object. Maybe it works within an 'anti-aesthetic' paradigm and...

CR ...an 'aesthetic' of untransformed materiality...?

AA ...whatever... There are movements within contemporary visual art towards the 'anti-aesthetic', but that's still just another aesthetic form. If one wants to work with the aesthetic, one has to home in on 'common ground'. You have to touch the middle. You can go to extremes but you have to refer to the middle to allow access. I don't know if I still have that desire to continually strike common ground. We've spoken about respect for the viewer, and this is important. If I've moved in my respect for the viewer, my expectation of the viewer has moved as well. The viewer is not fixed...

CR You are almost testing a particular threshold of the 'aesthetic'?

AA Yes. In the room there are things constructed from mundane material - clothespegs, nuts and washers, tags... Some are obviously 'aesthetic', others aren't. Anyway, talking about an aesthetic in essential terms doesn't work. There are always contextual relationships. The aesthetic lies in those relationships, not in 'objectness'. There are fundamentally different ways of looking at both objects and quality... there is no norm.

Observations by an Observer V: Art
Like you, I am continually exposed to an artfully manufactured visual world. This leads to ennui, disenchantment with that world. A disinterested, optical tiredness sets in. Then, unexpectedly, something cuts through the familiar. A not entirely comfortable beauty displaces easy habits. A common conceit of art, I guess, but rarely fulfilled. Your work has often held me in this way, but by using banality, the familiar. This 'making strange' evokes existential complexity, intellectual dis-ease, feeling (dis)embodied and disarticulated. The emotional precision, the way things are made, attached to one another, the simple tie of a knot. Secular rituals, modest processes, banal objects, mundane materials...

Room 6: Part 6

CR One thing which struck me in the slightly earlier work was the presence of the residue of some 'life' process, 'life' in a carnal or perhaps 'natural' sense. Processes like rusting, burning, staining, bleaching. Organic, dynamic processes which are often only present as a stain or trace. In one way the stain or trace seems like a necrologue, a discourse of the dead. But the connection I want to focus on now is between so-called 'natural' process, residue, and the idea of levels you have often invoked. Your discomfort with 'levels' (implying hierarchy) led to the image of a 'network', suggesting nodes, junctures, points of confluence where something intensifies and becomes significant. You enter an experience at a nodal point in a network. Nodes are generative, recalling both the plant you mentioned receiving in the post, a tuber, as well as the other parts of plants displayed here. Like rhizomes, they can grow tendrils or runners which may erupt anywhere and everywhere from their surfaces. 'Roots' and 'branches' are almost indistinguishable. A wonderfully monstrous metaphor for the network and the processes you seem interested in...

AA I see it more in terms of trees, particularly trees as conceived within discrete mathematics and computer networking. Binary trees really interest me; the need to discriminate, to choose between 'on' or 'off', 'yes' or 'no', the very fact that one thinks that there is a 'yes' or a 'no', while actually at every point there are other options, including refusing the entire system. Equally, I'm interested in the image of a network as a web or trap. Trees also have rich art-historical and religious associations. You have branches and roots, above and below ground. Branch and root are both 'tree', both net in similar ways. It's a balancing between the two...

CR ...symmetry, continuity, 'difference', simplicity becoming complexity...?

AA ...viral structures, the hexagons and pentagons of the soccer ball, cell structures are all present. I am also very interested in the tree as a structural principle. Not as a simple network as in computers, but also pointing to a connectedness beyond belief... But, equally, getting to the point of simplicity is also one of the things that I try and work towards. But it is not necessarily about simplicity. It's about obviousness. Simplicity implies something other than the obvious. The obvious might appear simple but it is probably the interface where things are least simple. It's the point where things can expand... a sort of infinite potential lies at the point of the obvious. The obvious is a plane - maybe that's where the tree metaphor works. Maybe the obvious is what happens at ground level. What is above appears obvious. Beneath, you don't know. But this is also too simplistic. Growing trees don't do what I am doing. These numbers...

CR ...codes that identify or classify something?...

AA One doesn't need to say what they are. They are decipherable. You can be really 'obvious' and still no one would know what you were doing... There is often no need to decode or convert.

CR There is something to do with secrecy and obviousness here. Are you saying 'what you see is not what you get'?

AA No. What you see is what you get... It is and it isn't...

Observations by Observers VI: Conclusion
CR Perhaps there is always, in everything, its opposite. If I suggest these numbers are about something secret, a cryptic code, you'd probably respond 'yes and no'. What seems fundamental to all these processes or images is that you can counter any assertion, any position taken, any interpretation made. Perhaps each positive whole has already built into it its own dispersal, its own disintegration. Samuel Beckett captures this, suitably mordantly, in a memorable phrase, when he speaks of "the screaming silence of no's knife in yes's wound". Perhaps less dramatically, this seems to be something your work makes concrete and conscious. It forces consciousness of internal resistance, conflict, discontinuity. It points to the location and weight of the burden of interpretation, and a fragility of means available to lighten that burden, the pleasure of playing the game...

AA Maybe this conversation should be a beginning, a source for further interrogation...