Interview by David McLeavy
Published October 2013
Rosanne Robertson works within sound, performance, video and sculpture. Her work continuously pushes the boundaries in terms of what these various mediums can achieve in traditional and obscure settings.
You have been described in a previous interview as a ‘provocateur’. What does this mean to you and is the intention to be provocative when you set about making work?
The word provocateur sits OK with me but I would prefer agitator. I am a big fan of agitation. I am extremely uncomfortable with the comfortable. However, I never set out to be purposely provocative I just aim to be honest and to not be scared of expression. I suppose the main thing is I don't aim to please in the usual sense. I am pleased when people describe an array of emotions in response to my work including the emotions that don't sit well. On the other hand there is a side to my work that can often be quiet and still but it holds within it a tension and a potential- I think there is a balance and not all of the work is overt enough to be described as provocative. My live work was also described recently by an interviewer as disconcerting, I think this is a very good word and I think it works better at describing the unsettling nature of my live work.
Risk Assessment, Chinese Art Center, Manchester, 2013
Making artwork can often be described as quite a selfish endeavour. How important is it that people experience your work in person, especially your more live works? And to add on to that question, how do you deal with the predicament of documenting your live works?
Experiencing my work first hand and in the moment is very important. I often 'make' the work in front of people- essentially reworking arrangements of objects, instruments, implements via action and sound making into a live soundtrack. For me, this makes the whole process less selfish (if it is going to be seen as selfish)- it certainly makes it less about the depiction of the lone artist beavering away in isolation. The live art space is important to me as it is a space where anything can happen- I feel it honours freedom of speech and expression. Spontaneity and being able to act on another based on the situation we all find ourselves in- makes it a more democratic platform for me. As an artist I hold no authority and my work holds no answers or resolve. I try to extend an honesty, which I don't see as a selfish process.
I don't concentrate too much on documenting these works- mainly because I want them to exist as live one off works. Some of my live works may have similarities or use some of the same objects- but each is a new piece. I don't want each of them fully documented and archived because for one it causes too much projection out of the moment as it is impossible to not consider the camera when making/performing the work. Secondly people will sort of consume that imagery as the work- when it is just one perspective of it. Another point is that I don't like it when there are photographers dedicated to documentation as they get in the way of the viewing! I am very lucky to have a very intuitive wife who is also an excellent photographer who when she is around always manages to get a handful of images that work well at representing the piece for my website and for communicating my work. Apart from that I like it when people take their own photos and videos and then send them to me as then it is truly from the audience's perspective. The drawback of not having a load of hi res super squeaky clean documentation is that people have kind of become accustomed to having access to works in this way. I do have plans to get some decent sound recordings from some of these works and see how they exist without the live action and physical presence.
There seems to be very strong relationships with music in your work, with noticeable parallels to the way you would work as and artist and as a musician/band. I am interested to know if it is particularly important that your performances are seen in a visual arts context rather than a musical context, and also if you feel a music audience would embrace the work as much as a visual arts audience?
My work encompasses many things related to music which I never saw coming. I have never had a strong relationship with music- quite the opposite I have always found music uninspiring. It was when I found noise and sound based experimenting that I became interested in the audible. I don't class my sound making as music- I avoid the word as I avoid using the word performance art- I just don't like the connotations of all singing, all dancing, entertainment. I have no interest in entertainment. I suppose the main parallels to the way I work and performing as a musician or band is that you can hear what I do and it is live. One of the big differences is the stage, the set up, the structure the lighting etc. I have never performed my solo work as an artist on the stage or at a 'gig' and I'm not sure I ever intend to- but I might- I wouldn't rule it out. If I were to I would see it as a bit impotent to do what I do at a music gig. It isn't what people would be expecting- and not in a good way. It would be categorically less embraced in a music context than a visual arts context. It is just the wrong setting- unless I made what I did more musical. It is too sporadic to get hold of in these circumstances and it just wouldn't translate. I do however find it interesting and challenging to incorporate some elements of my sound making into a band set up with my band ILL. In this context I am an experimental musician using found objects as instruments- fucking a drum kit with a contact mic'd vibrator, using hair clips on a metal cod piece and sawing nail clad limbs. In this situation I am just one part of a more structured set of songs- it is really well embraced by the music audiences. My solo work is more clearly sound art if it is going to be called anything- which is a big blurry fantastical place to be. But in
general I like to keep the lines nice and movable. The gallery, the studio, the street, the gig, the room above the pub- I like to be able to move around it all.
I do not find it important that my live work is seen in a visual arts context but I find it interesting to make live sound work in places that may not have had much of a relationship with sound. For example I liked that when I was in residence at The Chinese Arts Centre that the staff and visitors weren't used to unusual sounds bouncing around the place. People would pop their heads around and approach the space with a really endearing intrigue, looking around them and around the space which I don't see with work that is solely visual or uses sound in more expected ways as with video soundtracks etc. Perhaps some people were experiencing live sound art/action for the first time? I like this. I also think that contexts for art should be opened up more with more cross over and more room for experimentation.
Attachments Applications Model 707A, The Penthouse, Manchester, 2013
You have set up a space in Manchester known as The Penthouse. Could you talk a little more about that and what your intentions were/are with the space?
The Penthouse is my base with my wife- artist Debbie Sharp. We co founded the space as a shared workspace, it is our studio and project space which we open up to other artists. We were looking for a studio after paying a lot of money for a small room in another studio group which housed loads of artists- we wanted something more suited to our practices and a better use of our money. Debbie found the space (she is always on the lookout for good space) we liked the setup, the views of the city, the roughness, the weird L shape floor plan and the large corridor space which we envisaged being a suitably challenging space to utilise. We wanted a place we could host live events and run our own projects. I don't know why more artists don't do it in Manchester- there are loads of cheap and interesting empty spaces. For me it was and is a reaction to what I see to be a lack of 'hands on' DIY art spaces- and I wanted to rethink what a studio could be and make it more social- more suited to a live art practice. People expect their art spaces to be quite shined up and to present all the answers- but as with my practice The Penthouse often invites people in at the midway. We are rough around the edges and believe the artist led should be all about possibility. We aim to be an inspiring, inclusive place where you can get your hands dirty. So far we have ran a series of residencies, open studios, live art and sound art nights as well as hosting a number of one off projects and shows- we are constantly open to good ideas. In October we are taking our Penthouse ways to London for Sluice Art Fair- an artist led alternative during Frieze Art Fair where we will present new sounds/moving image and be part of the live program with Penthouse favourites Gary Fisher and Louise Woodcock.
Our intentions are to keep working with artists who excite us and to experiment with our strange little section of a 1960's office block in new ways. We seem to be sparking imagination and interest with both artists and audiences- we intend to keep this up.
Its interesting that you mention that The Penthouse, as well as your work, is about the possibility of ‘things’ and the midway point. Would you ever compare this approach to the way an MA or any institutional approach would be to facilitating ideas and development? And following on from that, have you ever considered undergoing an MA?
I think it is interesting to compare it to institutional approaches to facilitating ideas and development yes- I don't think we share the same approaches as institutions though that I am aware of - we are reimagining the space and culture for development rather than mimicking the institution. I think too many new artists and projects mimic the institution and run with the art world they think they should run with to 'make it'. I believe artists should stop trying to be so damn professional and start breaking a few eggs in order to make their omelettes. The Penthouse is a place you can break eggs and not worry too much about why.
Pedagogy is certainly present at The Penthouse- we are a place of shared development. We would be closer compared to newer forms of education such as artist and self run free academies than an MA course. The main difference I can see being that we are about learning through doing and sharing- at The Penthouse an artists practice is central. I have been in and around various DIY schools and I don't like how it ends up being mainly about talking about learning and how to do it. Another big difference is that the audience is key to development at The Penthouse. We invite all audiences to be part of the work and to engage with an artists work on a first hand basis- we aim to be as barrier free as possible. We aim to be the finest line between artist, their work and their audience whilst developing beneficial, substantial, personal and honest relationships. A deep-rooted inspiration for me that lurks heavy in the background is Black Mountain College; an experimental college in North Carolina founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier. This was an educational experiment that saw John Cage's first (later termed) 'happenings' and saw experiments by artists such as Yvonne Rainer one of the organisers of the Judson Dance Theater. I obviously have no idea what it was actually like there but my imagination has it down as something real where people truly had the passion to push for something new.
I have considered an MA but I feel pretty inspired where I am right now. The thought of doing an MA comes and goes and usually boils down to the conclusion that I could probably better spend the money.
You talked about Yvonne Rainer in the previous question, and I am interested to know if you have any idols in the artworld (past or present) or people you feel have strongly influenced your work at any stage?
I am inspired by women who have pushed on to have their voices heard and presence felt in a white male dominated culture and industry. The artist who always keeps me on when I think of her conviction and honesty and dedication to her practice is Louise Bourgeois. I love the realness, the honesty and the sheer level of progression over her long career. I also love the ambition of the work- not just in scale but in terms of translating the personal.
Yvonne Rainer's work encompasses a relationship with art and politics which I really admire and I think works and is very powerful. I have only read about her- I only have my own idea of how she went about her work but I imagine that it was all encompassing. I believe strong work comes from not disconnecting the personal or the political situation of the artist from the work. I want to live this and feel it. I am inspired by artists who really feel it. The thing I love most about Yvonne Rainer is her NO manifesto, I like artists who have conviction and her manifesto makes me laugh also. There is a brutal seriousness about her sense of humour. I am also a no- nonsense sort of artist- I am not here for the theatricals.
NO to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator,
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.
I am inspired by what has gone before but am more spurred on by what is happening now. My wife Debbie Sharp is a brilliant artist- and she just does it. She does/makes because she has to- she puts heart into what she does and I admire that so much. I am inspired by all of the artists around me including Louise Woodcock who was the first person to invite me to make a sound when I thought it wasn't 'my thing'. Louise is a brilliant artist in my eyes as is Neil VG (Gnod) her partner- together they form 2 Koi Karp . I would like to collaborate with them both.
An artist whose live work and sounds always inspire me is Verity Susman . I saw her live at Islington Mill at the end of 2012 and it has inspired me to step up my live work. I love how she approaches gender with her work and her serious sense of humour with acts such as looping sucking and squeaking her sax mouthpiece and having Siri (the little man inside an iphone) read lesbian erotica. She operates mainly on the experimental music scene- in more of a gig set up than I do but her work is not so easy to digest in these circumstances. Sometimes it is awkward, embarrassing, repetitive. I really liked how uncomfortable it made many groups of young men who were around me when I saw her set. It made them awkward as it is from a world where not everything is designed for them- and they are not used to it. In the moments when her work was less easily digested as 'music' I could feel the expectation for her to fail or giggles that she was 'getting it wrong' and people's fear of trusting in it or going with it (I imagine she gets less ignorant reactions in other European cities who have better scenes). There is always a sense of a female musician or sound artist having to prove their competence before they can deviate from more obvious structures- a male artist is assumed to already be competent with the ground work- a female artist is assumed to not know what she is doing. As always a female is taken less seriously in serious matters. This is why I love an intelligent subversive sense of humour in live work.
Semi Automatic, The Bluecoat, Liverpool, 2013
Do you feel that the divide between the way people approach male artists work and female artists work is becoming less polarized due to the work of popular female art icons of the 90’s or do you feel that has made no difference, or perhaps made it worse?
I think the Girl Power Art Star status of artists such as Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas was a double edged sort of implement. I think the rise to iconic status by such artists can be seen to be progression in terms of writing important female artists into history and taking a female artists career as seriously as her male counterpart. But also I think attention on these artists as particularly female- or sort of 'bad girls' still seemed tokenistic.
For me polarisation occurs in the way that women in art are approached in terms of seriousness, their intelligence considered in terms of 'genius' and their place being written into history. We approach and judge art as well as everything else from a perspective that does not understand what female genius looks, feels, sounds like- as we operate in a patriarchy. We live in a system which continuously undermines women- and I do not understand how we can view any output from men and women on the same level until this changes. I do not believe a handful of icons from the 90's could have changed this- as it was communicated from a place of complete white maleness and privilege. We need feminism in order to honestly view women and men based on their own serious merit- which would mean not portraying one gender from the eyes of the other- but by understanding both and upholding both women and men equally in study and history. We need feminism- everywhere.
When some women are selected and put on a pedestal as being 'proper' as being 'as good as' - it confirms that the women who went before were not. I see it as a dangling carrot to keep women down. It is bullshit that the only women who have been written about as important parts of cultural history were the only worthy candidates for such positions. Women in art have been grossly misrepresented. I honestly believe people are terrified of a woman who truly expresses her self and who has something to say or to change- her existence disrupts. Which is one of the reasons I find it important to disrupt. I used to think I was grateful for figures such as Tracy Emin - as when you look to a world you cannot identify with you cling on to anything. But I would of rather a thousand female artists given real representation and be written about on a level platform than one female artist being inflated to obscene levels- this is the opposite of progression to me- it is the continuation of polarisation.
So what is next for you?
I am presenting some recorded work and objects at Sluice Art Fair w/ The Penthouse and Debbie Sharp, Gary Fisher, Benjamin Crystal Plimmer and 2 Koi Karp (Louise Woodcock, Neil V Gnod)- as well as performing as part of the live program this Sunday 20th. Here is the Sluice website http://www.sluiceartfair.com/ - it is an artist led fair during Frieze Art Fair.
And then I am developing and recording some new sound works- hopefully in a church I have just been introduced to in Todmorden.
And then Debbie Sharp and I have been asked to curate and produce work for a section of Salford Sonic Fusion Festival in April 2013- which I am developing a larger scale work for and we will be hopefully commissioning some new work as well as performing. Here are details from 2012- I cant say too much about 2014 http://www.salford.ac.uk/arts-media/about/events/salford-sonic-fusion- festival
Rosanne Robertson lives and works in Manchester. Recent shows include Risk Assessment, Chinese Art Center, Equals, Blank Media and Rejected Proposal, Contemporary 6.
If you like this why not read our interview with Sebastian Jefford
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