The Point of Failure: An Interview with David Bellingham
Lisa Otty, Summer 2009
David Bellingham is a Glasgow-based artist and small press publisher, whose work has been shown throughout Scotland and internationally. Using diverse media, from painting and sculptural installation to books, postcards and other printed material published by his imprint Wax366, he explores the relation between objects, words and contexts. This informal interview, in which he discusses his creative practice and approach to working with text and image, was conducted in the Artists’ Books Archive at Dundee Contemporary Arts, which holds a collection of Wax366 publications.
Lisa Otty: David, you are both an artist and small press publisher, which is an unusual combination. I wonder if we could begin by talking a little about how you got started with your press, WAX366?
David Bellingham: I think I started publishing in 1992 or thereabouts. It was then that I started to produce larger editions, although I had made publications in smaller editions prior to that. WAX366 came about because it seemed important to decentre myself from conventional publishing, to operate outside and to release things under my own terms. The ambition was to make proper books and printed works of various kinds but, while there have always been some larger scale things, I have concentrated on smaller scale items such as booklets and cards. I called the press WAX366 because there is a tradition in small press publishing of naming presses romantically, after boats or towns or girls or whatever, at the time I had a Morris Minor car that was the love of my life and its number plate was WAX366, so it is shamelessly romantic.
LO: The tradition of small press publishing that you mention can sometimes appear as a means to circumvent the politics and demands of mainstream publishing: is that what you mean by decentring yourself from publishing?
DB: It wasn’t really a rejection of mainstream publishing per se. I was always interested in making primary works, publications as artworks. Now it is hard to expect someone to publish a postcard or a piece of folded paper and the forms of these things were always essential to the way in which they were read. An item such as the folding card which reads ‘between fields’, and opens out to read ‘narrow woodland’, is tiny. Who else would want to publish it? You have to do it yourself; there is no other way. So it didn’t seem to be about compromise. It was more about expediency: having an idea, wanting to realize it without delay. It didn’t cost anything to print such things at the time, as I had a little letterpress machine. You can come up with an idea, devise an appropriate form and just print it, and get it out as quickly as possible: the whole thing can be done within a working week and I like that immediacy. Lawrence Weiner described the modest means required for such publishing as: ‘anyone who wants to publish a book…just has to give up lunch for a couple of weeks’. With real publishing there is always a delay and that can be infuriating. It is sometimes interesting to get work out quickly as if it were news; something to occupy the stop-press box that was always left blank in old newspapers for that last-minute bit of news. I always thought that there should be a ‘stop-press’ box left in the project, like a little aperture left open. A lot of this work is occasional, in that it happens in response to something—a public event, a political or artistic event, or an acknowledgement of a body of work that has been an influence. It always seemed to be important that these particular works have their own integrity, are determined by themselves rather than by the company of other pages in a collection or by other works in a show. It is a non-serial activity: I think that is quite important to acknowledge. They are all one-off things. Together they amount to something that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts but nevertheless each of them is a whole thing. They are whole things, not fragments of things.
LO: That’s an interesting comment, particularly as I think some of your works show a concern with fragments—or perhaps better incompleteness and partiality—not in a Romantic sense, but in a literal sense. I’m thinking of the pieces that involve drawings of numerous shards of glass, for example, or shapes created by apertures in the leaves of trees. If that is not an interest in the fragmentary or the serial, what does motivate such works?
DB: Well those works are quite different. The Sections project, in which patches of sky are transcribed through gaps in foliage, is in fact a serial mock-Modernist project, in that the parts do not make a great deal of sense alone, it is the repetition that consolidates the work. The Sections are always shown in groups usually painted directly onto the wall. With the stand alone printed works we have been discussing the individual works accumulate into something greater but they are not dependent on one another. You quickly realise, when you make things, that you can’t say everything at one time. As in conversation it occurs gradually. I suppose the model was in the Wild Hawthorn attitude, of sending out dispatches. I felt there was a way of making a straightforward commentary on the state of things as you come upon them; the world is not split into fragments, it is our attention that is drawn to detail. An event such as bright sunlight hitting the side of a building can hold our attention. It may be just a familiar grey building but the way the light falls alters it and that coming together of something temporal and something fixed makes something new. I am interested in paying attention to that modulation of detail, those details are registered in the work. Similarly in terms of subject matter, there are many different surface subjects that I cover but a manifold of subjects can be brought together through approach: so there is a formal linkage, a shared approach to things. I have always felt that the work should be as accessible as possible but at the same time I do not want it to be summed up by a common subject. I do not want someone to be able to say ‘the work looks like this’, or ‘the work means that’, I want it to be something that is accumulative, something that takes some time to get to know. The work happens between the gaps.
LO: Well it’s certainly the case that one of the joys of looking at your work—and the same is true of the Wild Hawthorn material—is finding links between different pieces, creating your own paths through it. Is that how you envisage people engaging with it?
DB: Because the publications usually come about as part of an event or exhibition and are sold or given away there, most of the people who come upon the works have never seen them before and will never see them again. I understand that the work has that kind of a life, but yes there is the hope that there is a of core group who have a sense of that larger project, that larger picture, and I do think of it that way. I have said before that I think of all the work that I make as image-making, as picture-making. Some of the things may look a bit like poems, some might look a bit like objects, a bit like photographs, but they are all images. Of course I do not mean image in the sense of a picture that records a likeness by way of imitation, I mean a conceptual construction, the bringing together of various elements into a unified whole; so not an image of something but an image as something, not a secondary illustration but a primary self-determining thing.
LO: The extent to which you use text in your work is striking. The book Fresh Fruit and Tables (2008) for example, plays with the printed word and letter form and seems to me to reference concrete poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and BP Nichol. Yet, as you say, you see yourself as concerned first and foremost with images and image-making and, when we showed your work to some of our co-researchers they unanimously felt it was predominantly visual and that they were viewing rather than reading your work. I wondered the extent to which you understand this difference between reading and seeing operating in your work?
DB: It is not a literary project. I am an artist. The words have always been used as unitary things. I use words a bit like bricks, the brick is a unit and the word is a unit. It is a constructive process. So it doesn’t surprise me that your colleagues view the work in that way. The texts in that book are not calligrammes, or made in the shape of pictures, but the sense of the word and the way the word is placed on the page do something together, something is suggested that is distinct from our general understanding of that word and a significant part of this is visual. There is a famous line of Robert Creeley’s, which Charles Olsen used in Projective Verse, ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ that summarizes this beautifully. The way that the work looks and, in the case of text, what it says, are completely intertwined. The way words are written or rendered, that oscillation between handwriting and type that I sometimes use alters the way things are read. I am interested in visual things, in making pictures, so when I use words I use them as elements of a picture. I treat colour in a similar way as an additive element. When you consider that everyday situation of light hitting a building, where the insubstantiality of the light and the substantiality of the wall come together as equal elements, the fact that one element has substance and is concrete and the other is insubstantial, passing and fleeting, is not significant. In a potential image they are equal things, equal elements. I am interested in bringing things together in this way, colour is a part, words are a part. Colour is for the most part an unavoidable thing in the world, you classify things by colour, you can’t help but stumble upon it and I suppose on an emotional level I like the way it can condition things, you can use it as a way to prime the way that something is set up. I have been making a lot of paintings recently, text-based things on canvas, monochrome but quite bright monochrome surfaces and in a way this coloured ground is primary subject – you get a bright yellow surface with fractured words within it, the words almost become secondary to the colour, it is interesting the way the colour consumes. What might otherwise be quite graphically and linguistically potent is partly consumed by the bright surface, I am interested in that oscillation between perceptual conditions.
LO: Yellow seems to be a colour that recurs in your work…
DB: Yes it happens a lot.
LO: It’s a colour that attracts people to it, and of course it has signage connotations and so on.
DB: Yes. There are signs in the world, and signage is an influence on the work. There is always that awareness that there are words in the world on flat surfaces, in galleries they call them artworks and out in the world they call them signs, and I am interested in that call and response. Yellow is a colour that draws you in, it is self-illuminating. You can’t use it all the time but for certain things that need attention you can use it, I suppose it is a rhetorical colour in that way. It is not unassuming.
LO: Okay, but nevertheless words as such obviously have meanings and references that take them beyond the visual, in a way that other pictorial elements or ‘units’ such as colour do not. So what is the attraction of words?
DB: Words are part of the world. I was clear from the beginning that although I was concerned with making art works and there were many art-world precedents to the project, I wanted the work to be a response to the world, looking out rather than looking in. And in the world as I experience it, you can’t get away from words, they are all around you. They hit you from the newspaper stand and they hit you from the signage that we can’t escape. To some extent, the work deals with that overburdening of text that is thrust upon us and attempts to reproblematize it. One of the dangers of being surrounded by words is that their sense goes unquestioned; people see a word and they think they know what it means. I think that actually—obviously—words have a functionality that has greater depth than any single surface meaning. The work is just an attempt to draw out the sense of things. In the modern world, the name of a thing and the thing itself can seem inseparable, I am interested in putting a wedge between those things again. Lets separate terms, lets separate the actuality of a thing from the way you might describe that thing in words. This distinction between the idea of something and the actuality of something was a preoccupation of conceptual art; the difference between a proposal and a work, like the space between a musical score and its performance. I am interested in that difference between the scoring of something and the performing of something. In the sense that you can have an idea and it might be a good idea, you can have many good ideas, but when you start making something, something happens and I am interested in that point. When you start working things change. Being attentive to that change is what I am concerned with.
LO: This distinction between the score and the performance, between ideas and their execution, might also be rephrased as a distinction between the theoretical and the practical. In a lot of your work, you reference—or, as Pavel Büchler puts it, attribute things to—other artists, such as to take only a few examples, Kurt Schwitters, Piet Mondrian and Marcel Broodthaers. Do their works operate as ‘scores’ that you can interpret; I mean do you see your work in relation to the ideas of art history?
DB: Definitely not art history. The work of those artists offers a practical model, their approach indicates a way of doing things, a way of approaching the world that makes sense to me.
LO: It is conversational then?
DB: I think it is almost exactly that. Sometimes art historians package artists—usually after they have died—as if everything they did was homogenous, everything was happening within a bubble that was determined by them. That’s not the experience of most artists. The experience of most artists is that they grow up together, they work together, whether literarily or separated by generations, and the work cross-references itself, so—we were talking about conceptual art—certain things I do are possible because conceptual art happened. I can’t pretend it didn’t. I’m not claiming strategic originality. Methods have been established that enable me to do the things I do. That is cultural inheritance. So every now and again, when it seems appropriate, I reference that. It is a continuation, a response, a dialogue.
LO: You’ve mentioned how important it is for you that your work is engaged with the world and, just as you engage with other artists, you also engage with contemporary events. Some of your recent works, such as Turnout (2005) and Cruise: A Wandering Voyage in Search of an Enemy (1998), are responses to important historical events on the world stage. Do you see art as having a responsibility to the world beyond it and to history?
DB: These works might seem atypical within the project, as they can seem to be more rhetorical, more political, but I don’t treat them any differently. They are also a response to something. It may be a response of wonder, or appreciation or of anger. But it is a response, one aspect of a body of things that come together to form a response to the world. Sometimes you can’t avoid politics. So with the Cruise piece, for instance, this is a classic example of an immediate response: something happened – a series of American air strikes in the Gulf, an act of aggression with contemporary and historical implications and my initial response was ‘oh no not again’. So I wrote the piece, printed it on a small card and sent it out as an immediate response. This happened to be a reaction to a political event but it is not necessarily more significant than other kinds of response, say choosing to work with some pieces of fruit because it was seasonally appropriate to do so – it felt like the right thing to do on that day. I am keen, I suppose, not to have the terms of the work pinned down by surface subject, if you want the real content of the work to be about approach you have to shift the subject regularly, you have to make it clear that what is on the surface isn’t really the central concern.
LO: I think that Cruise is really successful in doing precisely that. It brings into play the idea of Ulysses, poetics and the history of storytelling in that way, as well as the conflict between ‘leisure’ and ‘war’, a whole range of references are working in what might appear as a brief definition.
DB: Yes, and this is echoed in that more recent dictionary piece, the repackaged version of the Chambers dictionary. The full title is ‘An Odyssey, A Dictionary, a tale of wandering’. It is a follow up to the Cruise piece, and it takes up the notion that the dictionary is an epic form, a wandering voyage through language by way of definition. They are versions of the same work, separated by ten years; one is quite a weighty posh thing, the other is just a postcard, but they are modulations of the same idea.
LO: They’re very poetic too. I wanted to ask you about this relationship between poetry and art, which seems to me to be something with which you are engaged. It’s also notable that one of the artists whose ideas and models you seem to have frequently explored is Schwitters, a visual artist and poet. Do you seek out poetic influences?
DB: It is one of the reference points. Although I am insistent that the work is about image-making, that is not to deny concern for other things. Poetry is absolutely something that’s important, its similar to saying I am a fan of conceptual art, I am a fan of certain groups of poets. I am interested in a group of artists who made a move between literature and visual art, like Schwitters and Marcel Broodthaers. They are key for me because I am interested in that bridge between making things to be read and making things to be looked at, and they are working on the cusp of both of those specialist fields, problematizing what it is to be an artist and problematizing what it is to be a literary figure. I suppose to an extent, less obviously than those figures but still, I am on that cusp. But the work isn’t packaged as poetry, as I said earlier on I don’t want it to be neatly packaged, to be pinned down to a surface or a look of something. So I would assume, to answer your question more directly, that someone like Schwitters was interested in the visual aspects of the poem. He was performing sound poems, performing the Ursonata, but that was only one aspect of the work, as he was also extremely precise about the written score of that work. The score is a work: the last issue of Merz was dedicated entirely to the Ursonata, it is beautifully typeset, the whole thing. That approach to language sits alongside his better-known collages as a shared approach. I don’t see any inconsistency; I think he was an image-maker.
LO: I’m very interested in the way that interdisciplinary work can, as you suggest, open out questions about the role and mechanics of specialisation. While the divide between literature and visual art is one area that your work bridges, I think another is perhaps the divide between art and science. One of the concerns that you come back to frequently is measurement, which is of course a marker—or perhaps language— of the rational and the scientific. Indeed, one of my favourite pieces of yours is the little sound poem, after Schwitters, Units of Measure (1998), which is composed of abbreviations of metrical terms—dm, mm and so on—and which gives voice to these normally unvocalised signs, fusing the rational symbols of measurement with the irrational ‘primal’ noise of sound poetry. Is this clash between the rational and the irrational another conflict that you’re interested in interrogating?
DB: Absolutely: in those works that I have made with rulers, whether broken rulers or rulers that I have made additions to, I have used imprecise instruments. I am not working with precise tools, I am working with school rulers and badly made rulers, on which the increments are slightly out of register. In the case of the Painting by Numbers pictures, the printed increments of rulers are over-painted with irregular grey scales or colour scales. The slight flaws in the rulers are echoed in the stutter of the painted scales. Language too is an imprecise instrument in that it is variable and inconsistent – this is part of its charm.
LO: It reminds me of Duchamp’s pataphysical experiments. I’m sure you are familiar with the Green Box, in which he is trying to find a new language from visual stimuli, colours and measures and so on. Do you think of your work in that sense, as an attempt to find a new language? Or would that bring us back too far in the direction of words rather than images?
DB: The Green Box is a big influence. I love the idea that the informality of this loose collection of notes and sketches is offered as an equivalent to the monumentality of The Large Glass. The Green Box is obviously a major work in its own right disguised as a commentary on the glass. Yet I feel that there is an element of remove in that work, to some extent, it occupies specialist field. Whereas, the great achievement of Duchamp was the proposition that if you take something from the world and reposition it, in the current parlance you change the context, you change its meaning. That’s brilliant, it changed the face of art and everything that happened after it: whether it wanted to be changed or not, it changed. Of course this can be easily misread as, ‘anything can be art’ which totally misses the point. The focus of the readymade is not the object (however much people might want to read his things symbolically) but in the placement of the object and how that object primes the space around it. The work is the object plus the terms of its placement. What happens in the Green Box where he gathers his notes on the Glass into archival form is a great influence, for sure, but it lacks a direct correspondence with the world that I miss. As a result of his achievement there is now a self-referential cult around the world of Duchamp, it is a world that is set aside from everything else and his name is emblazoned on it. I am not interested in that cult of personality. In his defence Duchamp famously argued that an artwork is an aspect of contemporary life and that by his estimate has a life span of 20 years. So the artwork has an active life after which it either enters the museum or private collection as a historical artefact or it is lost and forgotten.
As far as is possible I aim to disassociate the work I make from myself, I am less interested in being an artist than I am in making artworks. I want the work to seem almost inevitable. I try to reduce things as much as possible. There is a lot more work in some of the things than it might appear, from a complex impulse you whittle back to a point where only the essential aspect remains, there is just enough left. The works of mine that, I think, are most successful are those that consist of very little. Ideally what is there should appear inevitable. I don’t want it to be knowing, I just want it to be part of things.
LO: Do you want it to be learning?
DB: I have a requirement that I learn from it. In the sense that
I think it is quite easy, once you have a bit of experience in how to make things, to make works. You can have ideas and you can execute those ideas; that is not a difficult thing to do, as long as you have some resources behind you. What I am interested in is trying to get to that point and then keep working, arrive at a point where a piece of work seems to have substance and then work beyond it to the point where you discover something new, where mistakes occur. You know it is the Samuel Beckett idea, ‘fail again, fail better’. I think that is a beautiful way to describe it, a much better way of describing what I am saying. So I am interested in that point of failure, the recognition of that point of failure and then taking it on board as a way forward, that is a clumsy way of saying that the work is about discovery and then sharing that discovery, rather than saying this is a good idea, here it is, sewn up in a neat little package. I am not interested in that. It is not about imposing an interpretation or reading of the world. The work is part of the world. That sounds obvious, but for one reason or another it seems to not be the norm. I think one of the consequences of art education is that the activity of being an artist has been professionalized to a point where there is this model in which people are taught how to make things and to make things that are quite tied up, neat little packaged artworks. I think that needs to be resisted. It is necessary to have a few rough edges and to leave things a little bit open, leave things to be read.
LO: Is this why you work between disciplines, then, in the sense that the gaps between fields or media are there to fall through or fail with?
DB: Yeah, I think this is important. In exhibitions, for instance, I almost never show one thing. I always like to show groups of things, allowing the way the pieces come together to generate new associations, with the potential for a more rewarding reading than could happen from any one individual thing. What happens when works accumulate is more interesting to me than when they are seen separately. The rationale behind the recent compendium-based books is to present the reach of the project in concise form, like a portable exhibition.
LO: Lets come back again to the idea of your work being in the world, rather than operating at a remove. Books like your recent Ideas Leave Objects Standing (2005) obviously have a different and broader public circulation to the cards and small press material we spoke about earlier. I’m also reminded of your site-specific project Returning (2007), I wonder to what extent you are interested in making public art?
DB: One of the nice things about doing a book with a publisher is that for brief period it is distributed, it has a life. The Fresh Fruit and Tables book was given away from 4 or 5 venues, published one week and distributed the following week, and then it was gone. People have kept a few copies but essentially it had its life. I see that as public art. Public art means different things to different people; one option is to cast a giant lump of bronze and stick it in a public square, another is to make a few thousand books and allow them to permeate, to have a public life. For me, it was another approach to disseminating the material. It is not about turning my back on anything: you try one thing, you try something else, you learn from each different approach, and what matters is that at any one time you find a way of getting the work out there. By looking at the different means of distribution, different outlets for what you do, you inevitably raise questions about what it is you do and who it is for, and those questions are interesting. It is a fight against complacency; I am not interested in doing what I did yesterday. I want to find some other way to do it. It is the new things that are interesting, and how these new things infect what you have done before. You have old things, and you throw in some new things and that changes the terms, changes everything. The work is not fixed.
LO: Returning was a project that developed through time, as the book shows, with new incarnations inflecting older ones. Is it still on going?
DB: No I think I am done with that now. That work started out as a straightforward series of type-written texts made in 2001, the form is a simple one in which the line breaks one letter at a time. Working and playing were the first two: the word moves on the page and you have to work to read it, so there is a playful activity there. On a surface level, the form induces a stutter in the reading process. A year later I made a hand written version and became interested in the contrast between the two. Then the opportunity came up to do a public artwork and rather than make a single intervention in the building, I proposed that we make a series of ephemeral items based on these texts—cups and coasters and bags and bits and bobs—to be used in the building, that would have an after life, have a function. That would kind of disappear within the building. It is about function and transmission, about something that has an active life rather than a passive life. I mean you could have a stationary object in a central space, or you could hang something on the walls, or have something that intervenes in the structure of the building that is fixed, but I wanted to make something—the motivation is similar to the Fresh Fruit and Tables book—that has a transient life, something that has a transience to it, that is perhaps read whilst its being used. The items are latent until they are used, they are activated when they are used. The book came about really just as a way of recording that activity. The photographs record versions of the works that were made on walls in various European cities; it was a way of making anonymous interventions into public space. I would usually work on a Sunday morning, when it was quiet, find a suitable place, install the vinyl lettering and leave it to the elements.
LO: And again this comes back to a concern with time, the idea of a conversation and development through time, doesn’t it? Public art as not at all monumental, but in fact rather emphasising the transience of things and events. Much of the work that is in front of us today (material from the DCA archive) is from the early 1990s, so 15 to 20 years old now: how has your perception of it changed?
DB: I greet it as one might greet an old friend. Some themes have continued and others have stopped and they are what they are. I see the project as an accumulative one, and so the work I make now sometimes refers to things I’ve done previously. In a way when I was younger making work I felt as though every work had to prove itself because it was based on nothing, built on sand. Now there is this foundation of all the stuff I have done before, and so there is less pressure on the individual pieces because each new work is another unit added to the project, as I said before the project is not a fixed thing it changes as new works come along. That whole strategy would break down if I were to stop adding things. Another, pragmatic, reason for regularly shifting the subject of the work is that I have a relatively low boredom threshold, sometimes you just have to put things down and come back to them later. Occasionally when I see the older work, it can prompt something new. Usually I think ‘I can do that better, I’ll have another go at it’. Or a deliberate echo appears, as with Cruise and An Odyssey. When I make shows I often pull out earlier work: I quite like showing a few old things along with the new work. I do the same in publications, when I put the ideas book together, I put some older things in, just to add some depth to the mix. This brings me back to that point about working serially, I often make a batch of like works but rarely show them together, I mix them in with other works. As an example we were speaking about that recent group of paintings, they exist as a body of related work but I would not show all of them together, I would show maybe two or three. As a general rule I try to avoid showing uniform things that look similar as I find this can lead to quite a passive viewing experience. What I am after is an active viewing experience. The job of the reader is to draw links between these apparently disparate works, to determine how they might infect one another. My approach to editing the work is based on this idea of infection: I think of the sequence as a work in itself, in the bringing together of works something new is generated, a distributable public thing, which might be a show, it might be a book.
LO: You said you wanted to develop and change throughout your career…
DB: Did I? I did not mean to. I am not interested in development at all, I am quite suspicious of the conceit of development.
LO: Okay, that’s perhaps my misunderstanding of the point about trying not to do the same thing, and not wanting to be pigeon-holed…
DB: That is to do with the distinction I was making earlier between subject matter and content. I am interested in content, the subject is sometimes an aspect of what you read but it is only the literal aspect. The content has to do with the way you look at something, the subject is merely what you are looking at. How subject matter is treated and turned over, how the question is formed, these are aspects of content. So the content is relatively consistent while subject is constantly shifting. It is that between the gaps thing again. You could say that that subject is a scaffold that supports this nebulous thing called content.
LO: So it’s a kind of iterative process, in a way, of content rather than subject, keeping that distinction quite clear…
DB: Yeah the fact that the project is accumulative is important, there is a lot of repetition in it. Inevitably you return to ideas every now and then, if it has been a couple of years since I made something that involves measurement, I add a couple to the pile, because it is still something that concerns me. In the same way I might not have opened a book by Kurt Schwitters for years, but rereading will almost certainly prompt something. It is like keeping reference points alive really. This runs counter to the old modernist idea, the Poundian idea of ‘make it new’, I am not at all concerned with that kind of progression. That word, of course, has been terribly abused by politicians of late—it’s always ‘Advance! Advance! Progress! It happened in the past therefore it was bad, we’ll improve things, create more choice than you have dreamt of’, change for the sake of change. Conversely I think the things we cherish most are constant. Those continuous elements need to be readdressed, to be looked at, reviewed on a regular basis. There are certain key questions that occur in the studio along the lines of why am I doing what I’m doing, how am I doing what I’m doing. That assessment of methodology is a big part of content, the way you form questions, the way you treat the material that you are working with.
There is a lot of work around that seems to do little more than illustrate ideas or rhetorical positions, a product of too much research. As I have said elsewhere ‘I don’t know about research I’m just Searchin’’. There is no point setting out if you know where you are going to end up; the work is an improvised response to things and events, the variety of the work echoes the variety of everything else.
LO: When you put it in those terms, it sounds as though it’s very much bound up with your rejection of serialism, the repetition of the same…
DB: Yes, but it’s a personal rejection. There are many artists whose works I respect greatly, who have spent lifetimes working serially. I appreciate the argument that you cannot do the same thing twice no matter how much you try: someone might spend their life drawing circles on pieces of paper, and every circle will be different and there is a beauty in that subtle shift. But it is not for me. I think you’ve got to be honest with yourself and find out what the terms of your project are. Ultimately I think you realise what you are able to do and then you make the best of your limited abilities. That is certainly what I’ve done. If what you are doing becomes a habitual style you should change it: if it looks too much like art, then there is a problem. I was concerned early on, or aware that I wanted to make things that looked a little unformed – that contained some doubt.
LO: So in a way it’s work that is wearing it’s gaps on its sleeve—you’ve used the word stutter a few times today—in the way that in Returning the words appear with the gaps, sort of exposing those breaks within the words?
DB: That piece is, I suppose, a visual exploration of that idea. Of course in literal terms, stuttering is a disability, but when part of something is repeated, or all of something is repeated, voluntarily or involuntarily, something happens, the surface of the word is broken, it gives depth. There is something quite beautiful about hearing a word stuttered, as if it were hovering in space. I would like to make the case for a stuttered approach to subject: look at something once, look again, keep looking. Everything is so accelerated in the times in which we live. There is often not enough time—or there does not appear to be enough time—to stop and look, one of the things an art project can offer is time to stop and look.
LO: One of the interesting things that came up when we showed students your work during our research was the almost unanimous sense that that it somehow constituted a puzzle. They enjoyed that but felt challenged by it, and had a sense that they hadn’t solved it. For me, that raises the question of what we expect from art today, the question that you have just raised, of what art offers to those who engage with it. In a sense, preventing resolution might be a kind of strategy to avoid that danger of being categorised, fixed or classified: are you trying to keep your viewers puzzling?
DB: No. Duchamp said: ‘there is no solution because there is no problem’. So there are no hidden solutions, but obviously the work is not declarative. If something is not declarative, if something does not wear an immediate reading on its sleeve, does this constitute a puzzle? It may do. It all depends on the approach of the reader and that is the reader’s business, but if they want narrative closure they are not going to get it from what I do. It is open-ended. I am not interested in answers at all; I am interested in turning things over. That drawing to attention is what I am interested in.
I am just interested in saying ‘look at this’, perhaps not even ‘isn’t it interesting?’ but just ‘lets look at it again’. In the culture we live in there is a kind of cult of specialisation, everyone is a specialist and all those specialists have a provisional thesis, they are expected to have conclusive answers, the answer is treated as a product. The artist has a responsibility to counter that didactic mode. One of the functions of art is to propose that we pay attention to the actuality of things as opposed to what they might mean. I resist the assumption that everything should come with an explanation. Like an image in a newspaper that comes with a caption, the caption conditions the way we read the image. I am interested in removing the caption, presenting images under their own terms. So if that is seen as problematizing, then it is because it is throwing responsibility back on the reader.
LO: Yes, the idea of it being puzzling seems to me to be exactly a symptom of what you’re saying, a symptom of the idea that there should be an answer to everything or have an explanation.
DB: I could provide a commentary but I am increasingly resistant to that. I object to the little interpretation captions you find beside work in contemporary art museums, because the primary material (the work) is treated as an illustration, secondary to the explanation of the work. I think the work should be left alone to do its job.
LO: So in that sense, your strategy of using words as units, as things within the image, is a way of breaking down that relationship between ‘visual’ image and ‘textual’ explanation, a way of re-presenting words as things to be considered and looked at again. I’ve often wondered, when thinking about your use of black and white, about your working relationship with print. I would have guessed, before you told me where the name WAX366 came from, that it was a reference to the idea of the imprint. Much of your work also seems to be interested the contrast between the black of print and the white of the page.
DB: The idioms and the media I work with are really quite basic - they are ordinary. I do not use print in the way print-makers use print, it is more like the approach of the jobbing printer; it is just print. I use it as away of making stuff available and getting it out. I don’t want it to look fancy; I want it to look ordinary. It is never more than it needs to be. It is that reductive thing again.
LO: I get the impression that you are attracted to the negative, in the dialectical sense: the silence necessary for noise, or the gap you can move away from, the break that at starts the movement. Throughout our conversation today, as we circle around your work, we seem to have come back again and again to figures of this negative, from the empty stop-press box, through the divisions between disciplines, Beckett’s point of failure, stuttering pauses. Is that a fair assessment?
DB: I think that’s fair. The first step is to identify a space, the space sets the terms for what you make. So the work is like a spare part or a patch, a small part of something larger. I suppose it comes back to a set of related problems, you are making this work, you are involved in this activity, to what purpose is it best put? I am concerned with trying to identify a space that is beyond the rational, I do not want to explain things I want to show things, I think that is quite particular. It is simply a reconsideration of the familiar or that which is taken for granted. This might seem futile, but I am interested in reclaiming a space, a space of attention, just because there seems to be less and less time made available for attention in our culture. I am repeating myself again, but you know one of the things art can offer is the opportunity to slow down a bit, to stop and look, to stop and turn something over: that is the limit of my ambition, really. If the work can propose that, then that is enough.