Interviews with Artists

John Lawrence

Interview by Bob Gelsthorpe

Published March 2017


I'm thinking about publishing, not so much in the way of creating books, but the act of editioning. A finite number of things, and as you have a very diverse practice, I was hoping you could talk a bit about your experience on either ends of the edition / the editor / the edit...

Editing as a process, as in taking things away, stripping things back in order to see what’s left is definitely an important aspect of what I do. I tend to think in terms of ‘boiling things down’ as in a science experiment. It has something to do with being able to look more closely at something in order to better understand it, get a handle on it.

It was definitely some kind of relief when I realised that what I do… or more accurately what I do when my work functions at its best, is simply bring things together in order to see what happens… between them or against each other. See if they talk to each other, and if so, see what they talk about? And then, when you allow yourself to work with a broad range of ‘things’ or ‘cultural objects’ as I do, the form the work takes can end up being anything, even if this initial intervention is quite simple and straightforward.

A good, less vague, example of this might be within the recent touring project Sickly Revelations* which featured a single-channel video projection, a T-shirt mounted between glass, a series of text-based posters, photographs strewn across the floor and images installed as window vinyls. I had owned, lived with, and thought about this T-shirt and the once-commonplace-but-now-dated misogynistic nature of its slogan ‘I choked Linda Lovelace’ for years since I bought it on a street corner in New York somewhere in the 00’s. When I repositioned it against the backdrop of some footage I was working with at the time – footage in which our shifting relationship with technology is foregrounded through the detailed narration and hand-held tour of a lone man’s domestic audio/visual set-up – it became a way to further discuss how the dissemination of ideas and ideologies operates through cultural networks. The T-shirt as forerunner to the meme maybe.

Original Carbon Copies 6, Original Carbon Copies 10

In terms of editioning… the text-based poster works for this show adopted an approach I’d used previously in a series of works called Original Carbon Copies. In it original movie posters from the 1981 film ‘Carbon Copy’, starring a young Denzel Washington, are digitally overprinted with the online image used to prove their condition and sell them across fan sites and on ebay.

Sickly Revelations, installation image.

All the works in this series look pretty similar, in many ways appearing to be an edition of around 20. But the mass-produced nature and implied multiplicity of the poster format here is adapted to create a series of individual works, editions of one. I priced the Sickly Revelations* text posters at £50 because I didn’t know what they were… that’s a lot for a poster, but cheap for an original one-off print.

Sickly Revelations, installation image.

With Sickly Revelations* the inclusion of the * as a reference to the footnote *Life is brittle // REAL appears as a way of putting the first and last part of either a press release, book or gallery handout together; effectively making something linear, non-linear.

If I'm on the right track, is that delineation the pause for thought that creates opportunity for conversation? Or is the approach to researching the irrigation of information that you described (it became a way to further discuss how the communication of ideas, ideologies, operate and get disseminated through cultural networks) more direct?

I think you’re right – it is being used in some ways as a device to disrupt and avoid a certain kind of ‘linearity’ as you put it, which exists within these presentation structures. Like... if the title even needs a footnote… then what can we be certain about?

But it is also a way to further emphasise these ongoing connections, these networks of meaning… the ‘enmeshedness’ of all cultural output in a way. Also to present all elements of the project as equivalents – the title could be considered a text work in its own right, at the same time as referring to both the poster works and a particular moment in a written piece included within the project’s parallel print publication.

Which brings it back to publishing and dissemination again I guess. Alongside contributing a written piece to the parallel publication myself I also, definitely, took on the role of editor for this side of the project. Instead of just trying to present the installed exhibition as a book, I invited some curators, writers and academics I liked and admired to use the subject matter within the work as a jumping-off-point for new writing. Thus trying to further extend the parameters of the project without giving it a clearly defined centre or singular author, voice or meaning.

Contributors Niki Russell, Rachel Wilson, John Bloomfield and Dr Cadence Kinsey all approached their involvement in very different ways, and the result was as schizophrenic and diverse as I had hoped for! My urge to produce a stand-alone, but not necessarily easy-to-pigeonhole collection of writing and ideas also came from my own experiences as an undergraduate student, randomly pulling books of the shelves in the library art section and finding some self-produced gems that forced me to think at different angles. It’s quite hard to find things that don’t tell you what they are straightaway nowadays I find. It was those kind of things I always found most useful.

Sickly Revelations, book open.

Presenting collisions of disparate approaches tends to speak to me about anxious responses to socio-economic and political climates, and there is a lot of unresolved work that’s been made about it, but the publication Sickly Revelations* never does that. It’s charged with conviction, and I think that there’s a poetry in that.

Well that’s kind of you to say! ‘Anxious responses to socio-economic and political climates’ – isn’t that just the default setting nowadays for most of our brains? And probably has been for a while. This does chime with something to do with the micro and macro, or zooming in and zooming out which seems to be a recurring theme in what I do. I think it has to do with never giving any given moment too much…credit, haha. You can zoom out and make very serious, important things seem slightly futile and redundant, but you can equally zoom in and find something in the stuff folk have already produced which communicates powerfully, and in a way other things can’t. Using these things in some sort of combination, alongside newly produced objects, writing, processes, etc, is my approach to trying to better understand what the hell’s going on.

Unfortunately that is our default, yes. Can we talk a little about narrative, and how that develops throughout the process? Maybe in a cyclical way! I’m feeling like the gestation period throughout your work is the litmus test for the final outcome.

I think I would agree with that. I definitely spend a long time with things wondering how best to use them, or work with them… often to end up simply placing them next to something else down the line. Not always, but often. There are things that exist in the world that I know are ‘my work’ when I encounter them. It is then a process of living with them or turning them over in my head. This can be a physical object, some footage sourced online. A phrase, a song. If I’m honest I can be thinking about how to use a certain element for years sometimes before I know how to put it to work. It’s often said that ‘thinking through making’ is a productive approach, especially in the context of arts education. And I am an advocate for this… but I’m also a quiet advocate for ‘making through thinking’… although maybe not if you have a tight deadline.

In terms of narrative, this is something that’s very relevant to my current project The Solar Pessimist. It’s a light and sound installation produced initially for the vast space at Spit & Sawdust, Cardiff, as a result of being awarded the 2016 Kim Fielding Award. It includes a newly produced soundtrack by Berlin-based musician Tim Eve (W/ndows, Night Angles) which works in conjunction with a schizophrenic monologue delivered by actor Peter Hugo Daly…who incidentally has great stories about working with Scorsese and how he was almost killed on the set of Gangs of New York?!

The different narrative voices employed in the piece intentionally provide different perspectives, in all senses of the word. When our first voice starts to deny the existence of the sun, questioning why so much attention is thrown its way, the Sun’s voice then comes back and replies… and he’s a much more miserable force than might be expected. What a downer!

I can remember when writing first carved out an important role in my practice, and I think any subsequent, similar engagement with writing has drawn from this instance. At the time I was thinking a lot about that moment, or the image of that moment when Britney Spears publicly shaved her head, suffering as she clearly was from stress, exhaustion, etc. It wasn’t directly after the event, but it still felt like this image hadn’t been dealt with enough…or dealt with properly. It had been reported and shared, commented on and written about salaciously…but what did it mean? To me it felt like, somehow, a portal had been opened up within our contemporary image culture and some kind of truth was pouring out of it. A rock had been overturned.

I tried to use the image itself in different ways, but it was only when I realised that by writing about the image, and not re-presenting it, I could address it from a number of different angles, find out more about it. The image was already overused and embedded anyway. I took on a couple of different narrative voices to do this and then realised what I had produced was something like a story, or image as text, a thought process, or a script. I liked the slipperiness of it as a thing, how it somehow managed to convey ideas without presenting any real authority in its own right.

Poster for The Solar Pessimist

Not really describing something, but just knowing what it is. Thanks John. Where and when can we see some upcoming projects?

The Solar Pessimist takes place at Spit & Sawdust, Cardiff, from 7:30pm on Saturday 4th March and is on until the 12th…and then hopefully elsewhere later in the year too. Also my text/sound piece The Box is included in the current Happy Hypocrite_ACCUMULATOR_PLUS publication and radio broadcast produced by Book Works and NTS Radio. Thanks!

*Life is brittle // REAL


John Lawrence lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include Dry Riser, The Atic, One Thoresby Stret, Nottingham, Sickly Revelations, Oriel Davies Gallery, New Town, Wales, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, Andor Gallery, London and Super Woofer, Matts Gallery, London.


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