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INTERVIEW: Graham Fagen

Scotland + Venice, Palazzo Fontana, Venice Biennale 2015

Jaime Marie Davis: ‘The Slave’s Lament’, is a music collaboration and adaptation of a poem by Robert Burns, which is the author’s reflection on colonial history and slave trade – a history that he would have been immediately linked to had his poetry not have been so successful. You made a previous version a decade ago. Why was this return important, in the context of the Biennale?

GF: People have asked if I would continue work with ‘The Slave’s Lament’ in the past, and I didn’t feel I needed to then. It was originally made as a single channel video and portrait of Ghetto Priest. It had a beginning, middle and end, the way a song does. Then about a year ago, I went to Venice to select a venue. As I was looking around, the Blackamoor iconography on door handles, and shops that sell ornaments caught my eye. They are deeply rooted in Venice’s history of trade and being the hub of the routes between Africa and Europe. So there were seeds of thought about ‘The Slave’s Lament’ then.

JMD: Interesting stylistically for Ghetto Priest, coming from the East London band Asian Dub Foundation – merging reggae with Asian and punk influences…

GF: Yes! Another thing that influenced the idea was when I heard Arvo Pärt’s version of Burns’ lyrics for ‘My Heart is In the Highlands’, which for me is otherwise about a very cliché and stereotypical, romanticised Scotland. Pärt managed to compose an amazing score, giving place and space for the lyrics, which for me completely changed the meaning of those words. I became interested in a soundscape where I could create space and place rather than a song, so you could enter and exit without an awareness of the beginning, middle, or end. Then I started thinking about the types of sounds that would be interesting - classical violin, cello, double bass and dub reggae – merging two seemingly opposing cultures… These are very pragmatic thoughts on the background and complexities.

JMD: Has music, or music culture generally, been an influence on your art practice?

GF: I think so. I gave a talk recently on influence, and spoke about many things. Music was one of them. There are a lot of different things in music that I really like, in particular the collaborative aspect, that many people can compose one final thing – the function versus the concept. A lot of the work that I’ve made reflects that group or ensemble idea. I also like music’s directness – it can touch emotions that other mediums cannot.

JMD: This video brings together disparate, evocative sounds, but also uses the agency of voice – which has an uncontainable quality and one that travels in ways other art forms cannot. How does this work speak to the other visual and physicalmanifestations in the exhibition?

GF: I had quite a lot of discussion about whether the works were site-specific and interrelated. I suppose that they are both. Someone commented that they were simultaneously specific and universal – able to function anywhere and everywhere as well. That is certainly true for the sound work. The other consideration is the viewer’s journey. They have to walk through three rooms before they get to the fourth and final room, which holds ‘The Slave’s Lament’. So I suppose they are hearing the sound when they arrive, but they are not able to see the source until they reach that final room. Once they do get to see, perhaps the experience of that final work might influence how they read the other works.

JMD: Okwui Enwezor has incorporated theatre as a curatorial device, with the staged reading of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. In many of your other works, such as ‘Peek-a-Jobby’ and ‘Theatre’, you’ve undermined conventions of theatre, in some cases adopting Brechtian forms of learning-play, or theatre of discovery. Do any of these ideas find their way into the making and staging of these works?

GF: I think that’s an interesting comparison. I was interested in the viewer’s experience, and that reigns true for ‘Peek-a-Jobby’. For me, there is a kind of generosity in what you offer the viewer in visual art compared with theatre. With visual art you can go into the space and leave in five minutes, whereas in theatre, you pay, sit down and are given information for an hour and a half. For Palazzo Fontana, I was trying to think about the viewer’s journey experience through the entrance and the four rooms, and also incorporate what is outside the Palazzo. For example, in final room, we open the doors to the balcony to the Grand Canal and you hear the bells chiming in Venice, which becomes part of the soundscape – and the soundscape spills into the canals below. So there again is some continuity.

JMD: Another curatorial theme in the Biennale is a ‘Garden of Disorder’. Nature is a subject that often comes up in your work – and in this exhibition - specifically with ‘Rope Tree’ and ‘Scheme for Our Nature’. The sculptural works incorporate human forms into an almost post-apocalyptic or barren natural form. Beyond understanding our own cultures, and how they relate to others, is there a concern about human effects on nature lurking in the background?

GF: Yeah, I think that’s a fair reflection, because obviously the ‘Rope Tree’ has a noose on it, and it’s a tree without any leaves or fruits. Hopefully ‘Scheme for Our Nature’ is a bit more optimistic and has buds on it, and in that form has some sense of hope. I suppose the concern is with contrasts and comparisons between the natural and man-made – and that happens in a formal sense. The rope motif is commonly found on the facades of buildings in port towns and I’ve made it into a natural form.

The rope that was used is coir rope made from coconuts, so its life is a natural form taken and made into a rope, or a tool, and that tool is made into a form that looks natural. With both, the interest is in those comparisons, and I show it in a formal sense. Another interest is how that might play out in a thinking sense, asking deeper questions beyond form, or creating a forum to question our very nature: Is it possible to think or have a consciousness about a subject that is natural? Is it possible to have a consciousness about a subject that is man made?

JMD: ‘Scheme for Lament’ is much like your previous drawings, including ‘Scheme for Consciousness’, a drawing series of your teeth made by way of feeling through your tongue. Exploring both inside and outside, it seems to try to find an alternative way of both seeing and describing oneself. How did this reflective exercise expand your own practice?

GF: I started doing those teeth drawings using a creative process – using a very simple thought. But the more drawings I made, and the more I was looking at what I was doing – what was happening – I realised I was sensing a way to draw consciousness. And that is when I started paying more attention to people like the American philosopher, John Searle. He was making a claim for consciousness to be taken more seriously, on a scientific research level. The reason why it hasn’t been taken seriously is really interesting, because it is mixed with things like faith, religion and belief. So, going back to the question, that body of work was a process of tracing a personal curiosity, but by going through that process you perhaps discover values that are broader than a personal curiosity.

JMD: This has been an important year for Scotland, with the referendum for independence, and deciding how the country sees itself in relation to the rest of the world. This isn’t directly addressed in the work, but perhaps some of the ideas behind the subjects of that debate are still at play?

GF: I suppose the type of work I make is socially, culturally or politically engaged or aware. It’s been really exciting times in Scotland politically, and think it’s always been a politically engaged country. In the work in Venice, there is not a specific reference to what was happening in Scotland this year. But hopefully, what I was trying to do with the work, and the opportunity to take that work to Venice, is to share my social, cultural, political thoughts on a much broader sense around the table of culture that is the Biennale.

JMD: Your work is often organised as ‘schemes’. Do these exist as isolated plans or is there a bigger picture for them all?

GF: Yeah, I think they can exist as individual plans. It’s a collective title that I use because it helps me focus on a subject area in the studio. Maybe by labelling it in that way it also gives parameters that the viewer might find helpful. Maybe it’s also similar to that question earlier about it being site specific and universal.

JMD: That was my final question, but now listening to your last response, it made me think about working processes. Was there anything in the making and showing of this work that surprised you?

GF: The thing that struck me the most is perhaps the advantage of the Biennale. The opening happens over a period of a week versus a day. Because I was around all week, I was able to get primary feedback, which is unusual – and hard for an artist to deal with sometimes. What struck me the most is the emotional response, mostly from ‘The Slave’s Lament’, where people have been affected by it on an emotional level. One example, is a curator I’ve known for a long time, who has always been quite tough and critical… I noticed that he’d stayed behind one day after everyone had left, and came up to me and said, “I cried in there”, and then left. So I’ve had the space to reflect on the primary feedback and emotional reaction that I wouldn’t normally have expected.

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