Me, Myself and Others

Sonia Boyce interviewed by Isobel Harbison

Sonia Boyce, <em>Six Acts</em>, 2018 production still

Sonia Boyce, Six Acts, 2018 production still

Isobel Harbison: Your upcoming retrospective in Manchester focuses on works from the 1990s onwards, what informed your choice of that starting point?

Sonia Boyce: People often think about my work in terms of what was happening in the 1980s, but by the end of that decade my work had shifted. During what I now call the ‘wilderness years’, I began trying to figure out how to work in a different way. While I was teaching at Goldsmiths there were many conversations about artists such as Sophie Calle, which allowed me think about how I might move beyond gallery or studio-based practice to become more itinerant and to involve other people.

My work in the 1980s was very readable and seemed confessional, but I had got to a point where I just could not do that work any more. I wanted to step back from it being about me and instead explore other things that were informing those early works. The retrospective begins from the 1990s because that was when I started to work with other people in this more itinerant way, without being the central figure myself. The show spells out when and how that shift occurred for me.

Sophie Calle is an interesting reference point because I think that, like you, she is a storyteller using contingent objects in specific situations.

I create situations and then respond to what happens in that new situation. The show begins with a project from 1997 and 1998, which I made during a residency at the University of Manchester’s art history department. I invited people to come and be photographed wearing an Afro wig at Cornerhouse gallery – where the piece was finally shown. I thought I would probably have about ten people participating but in fact it was extremely popular, resulting in over 400 black-and-white images of the participants. The Audition marks the beginning of the show, alongside a video that documents that day.

You have long described your work as being concerned with the performance of identity. I think that resonates really strongly with a lot of artists who are working across media to scale the various repercussions of social media. I wonder how your transition from figurative drawing and painting to media like performance, photography and moving image aided this thematic?

Those early drawings were often composites, using fragments of observational drawings as well as imagery from magazines or publications. I was the performer in those works and there was a clear, direct, engagement with the audience. It was quite frontal: ‘I am speaking to you.’

But because they were drawn from my own subjective position, some people saw them as some form of authentic diary or autobiography. I realised that people were happy for me to talk about myself – supposedly myself – but couldn’t imagine that I might talk about anything else. Somehow, the question of being black and female, particularly coming out of the context of feminist art practice as well as what became an emergent black art practice, is that you talk about yourself, and you tell your story, and that is the only story you can tell. So, that was one of the reasons why I started to look at the ways in which I could include other people performing identities and masquerades.

When I realised that I couldn’t work in the same way any more, photography became one of those mediums that was employed and, of course, the performative and photography go hand in hand. Lens-based media seemed to make sense. Working this way enabled me to speak about others, and in relation to others, not just about myself. This was a key point: moving beyond any expectation that I could only ever speak about myself, I couldn’t ever speak about anything else. What would I know about anything else?

Representing the complexity of human subjects comes back again and again throughout your work. One of the cornerstones of the Manchester exhibition is a painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello by James Northcote, and you have recently spoken about the work as representing intersections of race, gender, sexuality and sensuality in a non-binary way. So, I wanted to know more about your relationship with this painting.

There are so many layers to this painting. It is not just a painting of Aldridge, but of Aldridge as something else. He is the figure of Othello, the figure of Shakespeare, the figure of the Moor, the black subject, and the black subject in the early 19th-century imagination. In many ways that painting continuously points outwards. We’re not looking at the portrait to understand Aldridge, he stands there as a representative figure right from the outset.

Shakespeare’s relationship to race, but also to crossdressing and drag, is one reason why I thought about drag as part of this new project. There is a great book called Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber from 1992 which refers a lot to Shakespeare plays, and in-between settings or performance spaces for undoing binaries of femininity or masculinity, for upsetting gendered signifiers and racialised difference. It is interesting how these things overlap – in ‘trans’ space – we quickly recognise them as a space which we all occupy in varying degrees.

Another aspect is the painting’s connection to ‘Devotional’, a series I have been making since since 1999 which is an evolving archive of names of black British female musicians. The first name on the ‘Devotional’ list is Amanda Aldridge, who was the daughter of Ira. So this painting has become a sort of mind-map to a lot of different elements of this exhibition.

In your new work, Six Acts, you cast five performance artists to work in the 19th-century picture galleries – were your casting decisions influenced by that painting?

Yes, but also from earlier conversations I had with the curatorial and public programming staff. As we were walking through the permanent collection, I noticed the amount of flesh on display, and it triggered conversations about which works people feel a bit uneasy about – particularly the relationship between gender, women and death.

I wanted to avoid positive or negative binary positions around gender and its representation. I had spent quite a lot of time during my residency in the late 1990s on Canal Street, a designated gay district of central Manchester, and I visited a number of the bars where the drag queens perform, and it occurred to me that maybe it would be interesting to make something much messier than simply male versus female. I thought, let’s introduce this other element that crosses supposed gender positions. That’s why I invited drag artists to have a conversation about masculinity and femininity, and respond to the imagery that is in the galleries. The staff at Manchester Art Gallery got in contact with the drag family ‘Gorgeous’.

Were those artists responsible for the particularities of staging and scenography?

In the projects that I do, I very explicitly say to people: ‘Do what you want to do within this scenario – as long as you don’t hurt anybody or damage anything.’ I want it to be fairly improvised and unrehearsed. So, there’s Cheddar Gorgeous, Anna Phylactic, Venus Vienna, Liquorice Black, all from Manchester, who came to several of the gallery discussions. They each responded to specific paintings within the 19th-century gallery, whereas Lasana Shabazz started of by responding to the portrait of Aldridge and then moved through a number of galleries, working across a number of works.

Did Shabazz and the Gorgeous family communicate in ways that resonated with how Astronautalis and Elaine Mitchener sparred in Exquisite Cacophony, 2015, or how Mikhail Karikis inflected the choral arrangement of Josquin Desprez, led by David Skinner in For You, Only You, 2007?

No. The Gorgeous family knew each other and had lots of conversations about what they were going to do, but there wasn’t really a dialogue between them and Lasana. In a way, we as the audience were the connections between them, moving between what was going on. There were moments when everything was all happening at the same time, so people moved quite freely, deciding what they would take part in.

One of the elements of the Six Acts performance was the public removal of the 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse. There was a media sensation in response to the removal. You have spoken before about the fluid parameters of your works, so would you now consider these press responses part of the work?

It has become a parameter of the work. It was not entirely expected, it wasn’t something that was aimed for. The taking down of Hylas and the Nymphs had come out of several months of discussion with curators and museum staff, and we settled on that painting because of specific problematics they outlined. These were complicated discussions that led to a consensus decision to take it down. One key thread of those discussions was, ‘Why is the gallery narrative displayed in the way that it is? Are there changes to be made and, if so, who will make those changes?’

For me, that particular action was an expression of those discussions, and the plan was to take the painting down and, in its absence, to create a space for people to write and place Post-it notes in response to some of the things that had been discussed in those various sessions. In the press coverage, the subject of those discussions was left out and what was highlighted instead was the taking-down of a historical painting that is well-known and well-loved. The curator and I were framed as the culprits. There was no interest in what this gesture was about.

We were asking: ‘Who has the power in museums to decide what is seen and what is taken down?’ Often these decisions are presented unquestioningly, as a fait accompli. The discussions we had continually evolved, with more and more people becoming part of it. It was never my decision to take the painting down, it was the will of this group of people within this performance. I was like, ‘OK, if that’s what you want to do; let’s do that’.

I am still confused by the media response. I understand that the moment you raise the question of censorship, there are only two answers you can have: yes or no. And invariably, particularly within a so-called democracy, one would automatically say no to censorship. But in this case, this incendiary term, ‘censorship’, affected the perception of the work, particularly through social media where people have a very remote relationship to what and who has been spoken about.

How was it to witness that maelstrom?

During all the attention, I had a conversation with two artist friends who said, ‘Sonia, you’ve got to say something’. I spent a few days writing a public response so that I could step back from the media tailspin, which had very little to do with the process behind the work. I needed a much quieter space to think and edit the footage of the night. I will say – and, of course, some people will disagree – but for me the piece is hilarious. It’s funny because it was so much richer on the night than in the conversations about it that have developed since in the press and on social media.

It is increasingly a question for contemporary artists of how we navigate the media beyond our tiny community, and whether we have the capacity to deal with these new infrastructures of circulation and the machinations of opinion-making. Because we are not here just to say what’s known, we’re here to explore and consider where we haven’t yet been.

The nuances of what’s behind your work were overshadowed by a sensationalist press response. This gesture also comes after a sequence of public, high-profile calls to take down various paintings, including Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, 1938, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, from last year’s Whitney Biennial, each of which demanded, and still demand, context-specific analysis.

Yes, but the specificities of each situation are not being reported. Instead there is the idea of a take-down as a uniformly militant action that is binary and just oppositional.

One of the questions that emerged in the run-up to Six Acts was what the diference was between Manchester’s permanent collection and something like the exhibition ‘Pop Life’ at Tate Modern in 2009, which showed Garry Gross’s image of Brooke Shields naked, aged ten, as re-photographed by Richard Prince, until the police came in and took it down on grounds of indecency. We asked, ‘OK, what’s the difference between photography and painting?’ What is the difference between those media such that, in one scenario, something is deemed so inappropriate that the state takes action, while, in another, it remains acceptable? What do we hold paintings responsible for that we don’t hold photography responsible for – and vice versa?

So, we were actually talking about the medium, and what are the value judgements we attach to media. People said things like, ‘Well, they’re nymphs, they’re not girls – they’re nymphs.’ I said, ‘Well, they look like girls.’ What does a nymph look like, and how would I know the difference between what is a girl and what is a nymph? Because the title says ‘nymph’? So, we started to unpick what these things mean, contextually and critically.

How long was the painting down?

I think a week.

And you have catalogued these different responses?

There’s a pile of them. So many different opinions were expressed over the period the painting was removed. It was also extremely busy because of the international media attention, with many more people coming to the gallery than is usual to witness the event’s after-effect.

You are still editing footage shot during and after the Six Acts event for a video to be shown in the exhibition. How do you navigate the moments in your work when you relinquish control, during live, improvisational performances, and then when you reassert it, in the editing or mounting of your lens-based work?

In 1997 I lived in a housing co-operative, and two brothers – twins – who were clearly performers, lived a few doors down from me. In the mornings, I would see them dressed in top hat and cape running across the park opposite. It was quite extraordinary. I thought I would really love to do a film with these brothers, for one to wear an Afro wig and the other one not to, and for them to kiss. This was going to be the film.

Then I put in an application to Northwest Arts to make this short film and, just before doing the Cornerhouse show, I got a letter saying ‘You’ve been successful in your application’. But in the intervening months between submitting this application and getting this letter, the twins had moved. I went on this mad panicked journey trying to find them. I didn’t want to work with anybody else, I only wanted to work with these two.

This is a very Sophie Calle story.

It was so funny. Finally, I found someone who knew where they lived, and I turned up at their house at 10pm, knocked at the door and said, ‘I know you don’t know me, but I wonder whether you’d be interested in being in a film project that I want to do?’ and they were like, ‘OK, come in’. I sat down and explained what I wanted them to do, they looked at each and said, ‘Can we both have an Afro wig?’ I said, ‘Sure, fine’.

I started by asking them to do a certain action and then they would respond in a whole manner of unexpected ways – their work is quite vaudevillian. It was a bit painful when I realised that what they were doing was much better than what I had planned, mostly because I was coming at it in a very formalist way. It became a kind of an epiphany for me as I realised by working with others that my own imagination might be limited. The twins were also very aware that I was not a confident director, so I found a way to work with this deficit, which is why I step back during the situations I set up.

Once you have cast your performers, do you annotate their movements or those of the camera?

No, never. In a way, the people with the hardest job are the camera and sound crew, who have to capture it all because there is never a script. Usually, before the event I go over the outline with the director of photography and also the sound person, and they try and work out what they might need, but there’s never a script for them. There is a lot of responsibility on the performers to carry what might unfold and for the technical crew to capture how the audience, or participants, might respond to that scenario.

Do you get nervous?

Always. There is always an element of anxiety to improvisation. The beginning is usually very slow and I always think, ‘Is anything interesting going to happen?’ and then something seems to click and something exciting happens – but it is difficult to predict when and how and through whom, and what it will look like through the camera, or what it will sound like.

In the past you have referred to WEB Du-Bois’s theory of double-consciousness, of a split, survivalist self-awareness of black subjects living within white social systems. You seem to have a double consciousness within those performances as both outside and within them, and I wonder if you are aiming to create a double-consciousness for your viewers?

What I want to look for in these situations for all of us in the scenario – beyond these magnificent performances by the people that I’m inviting – is how we negotiate difference together. Often there’s a male or a female, there’s black and there’s white, and there’s those who try to resist those positions and, of course, all of those things create a level of anxiety – but what do we do in that scenario? We negotiate group dynamics in our daily lives but I’m setting up a very theatrical situation in which I’m looking for ways for people to respond to that without being told how to respond. Inevitably, learned cultural legacies between self and ‘other’ seep in.

While I was grappling with some of the questions about group relations, Gilane Tawadros introduced me to Lygia Clark, who understood that objects allow us not only to imagine and project, but also to navigate relationships between each other. For me, Six Acts is about the way in which we are relating, whether it is through paintings or other objects, that somehow these become the meeting points through which a whole series of social relations reveal themselves.

So her use of contingent objects to render social relations resembles how you have used the Northcote or Waterhouse paintings, or other objects, motifs and scores in the past?

Somehow, Lygia Clark enables us through the most mundane objects, or what we might think of as rubbish, to explore and see all kinds of social dynamics in the most incredible way – but it only happens when you encounter the works, when you actually have a haptic relationship with them.

She also made a lot of her experiments at the Sorbonne with her students in the 1970s. In the same way, I think about the art school as a countercultural space. You take from it, you give to it and you take from it, it feeds your thinking and your making and the relationships forged are crucial. It’s where I get fed, in that environment, and I get very excitable. It’s a very passionate space with a community in which you can say: ‘You know, I have been thinking about this, and what do you think?’ I have been teaching in art schools for 35 years now, and being part of that is what has helped propel my practice, to keep me pushing and to have people question it.

Is there any one work of art that sustains you?

There are several. I always get really embarrassed when I talk about my interest in René Magritte – I guess it’s my guilty pleasure – but his practice was truly conceptual. What I return to in Magritte is his enquiry into the arbitrariness of signs. When look at Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), what ‘I experience’ and what ‘I know’ and the way I respond are at odds, because even though I know the argument for why it’s not a pipe, internally I’m saying: ‘But it is a pipe!’ This conundrum is what sustains me.

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London; her book Performing Image is published by MIT Press.

Sonia Boyce’s retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery ran 23 March to 22 July 2018.

First published in Art Monthly 415: April 2018.

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