Bryony Gillard & Phoebe Cripps
Interview by Izzy DuBois
Published April 2019
In this interview I am talking to artist Bryony Gillard and curator Phoebe Cripps. They have recently worked together on the exhibition Slippery Bodies at Flatland Projects, Source BMX, Hastings (09/02/19 - 14/02/19). The show was curated by Phoebe Cripps and showed the work of Bryony Gillard and Yetunde Olagbaju. Phoebe is the assistant curator at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea. Bryony is an artist whose practice spans across performance, sound, installation and sculpture. She unpicks and layers her research in an attempt to redefine complex feminist histories.
All images courtesy of Ben Urban
I wanted to start by asking you both about your involvement in the exhibition Slippery Bodies at Flatlands Projects.
Bryony can you tell me about your work that was shown?
BG: The works (Untitled, 2018 – body prints on latex) are part of a body of work I have been making over the last couple of years that explore the collapse of mental and psychic boundaries and the tentacular relationships between creativity, mental health and female(1) erotic autonomy.
The prints form compositions that speak of bodies made of many parts, multiple and entangled, contacting surfaces, skins shed, fluids exchanged. I’m interested in the politics of desire and masturbation/self-touch as an act of radical self-love (which has been an important part of feminism since the second wave(2)) and in a sense, the prints are traces of a playful interaction between my body and the latex, pressing, rubbing, touching.
(1) I am using ‘female’ as a term which is inclusive of all gender identities outside of cis male.
(2) see https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/cms/assets/uploads/2014/04/Women-and-Their-Bodies-1970.pdf
Phoebe can you tell me about your selection of Bryony and Yetunde Olagbaju’s work? Why did you choose to show their work together?
PC: Both Bryony and Yetunde approach the female body as a site of a kind of magical healing, but in totally different ways that might not immediately be obvious. I’m interested in that slow drawing out of the self, and the deeply personal ways that both artists do that in their work. They both layer histories in really interesting ways – for Yetunde, with soundtracks of recordings of her mother and grandmother as representatives of shared female black histories, and her exploration of hair as a kind of performed ritual of black womanhood, as well as her most recent work questioning imagery of the mammy figure. Her work has these personal and figurative entry points but is throbbing with all of these knots of collective selves underneath.
Bryony’s work also time-travels through a web of reference points, and is hugely collaborative in its making and development, almost eventually functioning as a body or organism that is complex and reactive. I’m really excited about how these ideas speak to each across both Bryony’s physical, slippery body prints, and Yetunde’s liquid screen landscapes.
Bryony you talk about the prints being a playful interaction between your body and the latex. At Turf Projects where you have previously shown a version of this work, there was an improvised collaborative performance Tentacular Thinking where through different processes of thinking physical interaction such as wrapping around the body and stroking occurred with the work. How did this challenge and change your own experience of the work?
BG: The project that the prints have come out of is very much about interrogating and exploring improvisation as a creative and therapeutic tool. I’m fascinated in the potential for improvisation to be an act of resistance. The performance that you mention, Tentacular Thinking (with Viki Browne, Maggie Nicols, Danni Spooner, D-M Withers) came out of a longer period of collaboration (resulting in the fore-mentioned moving image work) in which we went quite deep into exploring experiences in our own lives that could be defined as ‘jellyfish-like’ through movement, sound, discussion and reading.
Before the performance happened, I wasn’t sure how (or if) we would work with the prints, but they became quite integral; for example, D-M wearing one on their body like a dramatic garment—caressing themselves and exploring ideas of self touch and Maggie shrouding herself inside one, peeking out and waving at the audience. Before the performance I think I thought of the prints as place-holders for bodies in space, and as little echoes of the ideas in the moving image work. After the performance I’ve come to see more of their potentiality — fabric doesn’t really have a shape until it’s draped on someone or something and there is something simultaneously delicious and uncomfortable about the feeling of latex against the skin— a coldness at first and then the strange feeling as it heats up to body temperature very quickly. Before I think I could see their relationship to my body and body parts (on the prints you can define a thigh here, a nipple there, etc.) but now I see their relationship to many other bodies and how that might feel or look.
Flatlands Project is situated in Source BMX, the gallery space opens right onto the skate ramps. Phoebe, how did Bryony’s tactile and sensual sculptures respond to the concrete and open space of Flatlands?
PC: It’s a great question – there was definitely this interesting contrast between the supple latex, and with Yetunde’s works too, which both treat the female body as subject, and this very masculine hard wood and concrete structure sharing the same space. I don’t want to generalise about gender too much, as you often see young girls of around 8 or 9 skating in the space, but it does largely seem to be a very male arena to show off. The sound of the skaters really dominates the space and therefore I wanted the exhibition to not fight this, but to be somehow softer, more intimate, and to offer something different. In the end, the whole space – skaters and artists – are about performance, the body acting out gestures and creating alternative languages.
Slippery Bodies is part of the expanded programme of events and exhibitions of De La Warr Pavilion and Nottingham Contemporary’s joint exhibition Still I Rise which looks at forms of resistance from the perspective of gender. As both young women working in the art world why is being part of Still I Rise significant to you?
BG: As an artist and a curator, my research is concerned with marginalized Herstories and practices, reflecting upon events, approaches and ideas that refuse to be pinned down or categorized. Ideas around resistance, refusal or withdrawal are central to these concerns and I want to make my work a space for genealogies of Feminist practice that are allusive, messy and entangled with urgent questions of today.
I think sometime we forget that Feminist knowledge and Herstory are still vulnerable within mainstream culture and discourse — it is only a fairly recent thing that they have been considered worthy of exhibition making or critical dialogue. Exhibitions such as Still I Rise are so important in terms of continuing consciousness raising, bringing incredible feminist work to audiences who might not have had the opportunity to engage with these ideas before and enabling us to learn from these herstories. Since 2016, I have been working with Feminist Archive South(3) and I am continually moved by the contemporary relevance of the activism I encounter — there is so much we can learn from our feminist mothers in terms of self organisation and resistance. This knowledge (and exhibitions like Still I Rise) exists as an incredible tool and resource —an active space just waiting for our interaction.
(3) Feminist Archive South is an independent archive and charity, held at Bristol Univerisity and is one of the largest archives of regional, national & transnational feminist materials in the U.K from 1960’s-2000’s.
PC: I want to echo what Bryony says about feminist knowledge still being vulnerable within mainstream culture and discourse. There has been a lot of great work done over the past few years in giving more opportunities to artists who had been sidelined previously – whether female, queer or of colour. It can seem on the surface that much of the work is done; so many of my peers and colleagues are brilliant women doing really well in the art world. But that’s also actually the problem; it’s not always just about the opportunities, but also who is doing the work. So much work in the art world is done by anonymous and underpaid women – they are writing the press releases, sitting in the entrances to galleries, saving the jpegs, scheduling the Instagram posts, almost always the assistant. And at other levels, they are also the ones fighting for the funding to keep their vital programmes going, having to prove to their own institutions the cultural importance of listening to new voices. Shows like Still I Rise would never have happened without these precarious yet determined groups of women, activists and organisers demanding political and social change in the first place, and then with those magicking enough time and resources to mine those histories and retell and interweave them for new generations.
I am intrigued by the relationship between artist and curator. Bryony you describe yourself as both an artist and a curator and that within both roles you draw from the same research, I am not sure if I can see these roles as ever being fully distinguishable, how does the process and the questions you ask yourself change?
BG: They are totally not distinguishable, you’re right! When I was younger and working in curatorial roles in various institutions, I remember being told several times (usually by older men) that I should choose one of the other —which seems strangely binary and reductive. I think in general these are terms that I use when dealing with the art-world — they don’t mean so much to me, but they can lead to different opportunities, funding, work etc. and as a freelancer, these are things I have to be at least aware of, whether or not I choose to use them. I think rather than these two roles or modes of working being distinguishably different, perhaps it’s more about there sometimes being a different emphasis on certain things at certain points in the process of research/production/delivery (for example, when one might hold more autonomy than the other, or when in one role we undertake more emotional labour than the other) — just as there is with every project you make, regardless of what creative title you give yourself.
In your work you discuss ideas of structures or ideas being subverted, dissolved and questioned. Flatlands Projects looks to more sustainable models for artist led spaces. Do you think that it is important as young artists to disrupt the existing institutional structures that exist in the art world?
Do you think that we have a responsibility as young artists to be doing more?
BG: Artist-led activity is massively important and I think it’s problematic that there is often such a hierarchy in the U.K between artist-led and institutional spaces. I think there are lots of things to unpack here around the value of labour, the work we have do for free and what gets funding, salaries, etc.
My most positive experiences of presenting work or making projects have definitely been within artist-led frameworks(4) in terms of supporting my creative practice, having meaningful collaborations and interactions with audiences. I think it’s vital that we invest time in developing peer-led frameworks for showing, making, thinking about work, consider different types of economy in order to make these happen and how as artists we can support each other better. So much emphasis is currently put on audience engagement by funders and in my experience it’s grass-roots, artist-led projects that are actually reaching varied audiences and communities.
Artist-led activity allows us to take control of how/if our work is presented and the circuits of distribution it enters, it allows us to re-think the archaic and dysfunctional structures that are often at play within institutions, to make our own rules and potentially (if we’re being really utopian here) our own value systems.
However, I don’t think artist-led activity has an obligation to ‘do the work’ for institutions, so to speak, I think there is room in the sector for a multitude of different types of activity and I think there’s a danger of artist-led projects (which by nature have to be flexible and nimble because we are so often doing this work for free & it's precarious) being held up as potentially 'sustainable' models for institutions to learn from, when often they are totally reliant on volunteer labour. However, I think there is a lot that can be adopted by institutions, particularly how much better artist-led projects are doing in making their structures and activities representative and inclusive on every level and not just in a tokenistic sense.
4.. e.g a solo exhibition at the amazing Turf Projects in Croydon and artist-led projects I’ve been involved with in Plymouth and Bristol such as Project Space 11 and DETROIT Bristol
Phoebe, I want to ask you a similar question to one I previously asked Bryony about the responsibility of young artists to disrupt the existing institutional structures. I often find the expectation to not only work for free but on top of that to self fund the production and showing of work incredibly frustrating. I think it is interesting that you have both brought up issues around who is doing the work, who is being given credit and who is getting paid. What is your opinion on young artists responsibilities to disrupt these existing systems?
PC: I think it’s really problematic to put all the onus on the artists to disrupt the systems. Young artists might have the energy and the will to do so but are also at the start of their careers wanting to take advantage of every opportunity, so often feel like they can’t turn opportunities down. I’m also aware of my own role in this, and that I’m not myself yet in a position to pay artists for their participation in an independent show such as this, so there is therefore an expectation from my end that we are all working for free. Because of this, I mainly included existing work in the show. At the start of my writing career, I was also writing for free, and weighing up the cost of time versus the exposure and hoping that that work would lead to paid work one day. I think the structural problems go so much deeper than whether we are getting paid or not – it’s the amount of labour: emotional, mental, physical – that goes into even generating the opportunities that may or may not lead to getting paid. I think it’s up to everyone to try to disrupt that and, as long as we continue to self-fund, regretfully I think those structures will take a long time to change.
I think it’s really important that both of you have brought up issues surrounding labour, not only about who is doing the work, but about emotional labour too. As women we are consistently taking on additional emotional labour - often I think without really engaging with the fact that we are. We live in a society where in trying to succeed we find ourselves compromising, taking on more work and responsibility and, on top of all that, the emotional drain of having to fight to be included and valued too. It often feels like an uphill battle to produce work, to be noticed and to be paid. By not just operating outside of these systems, in artist led space and self-produced work, but through demanding them to do better we challenge the predetermined structures and roles which have been created by a patriarchal society. Sometimes, it feels like just existing and creating is a form of resistance. Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Bryony with be performing Harmonic Anatomies/Wet Mouths for PROJECTIONS at Tyneside CInema on 25th July. She is working on a moving image commission with RAMM, Exeter, to be presented in November 2019. She will also be an artist in residence at Hospitalfields in September.
If you like this why not read our interview with Tania Blanco
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